December 21, 2003

Sacred Lights

I heard an interesting and disturbing letter a couple of weeks ago while listening to CBC Radio. The writer had written in to complain about public schools not having “traditional Christmas” concerts any more. This person went on to contend that it was “sad to see our heritage disappearing and that it’s a horrible day when Christmas isn’t the focus of a school’s winter concert.”

The tone and ignorance of the letter reminded me of my years as a music teacher in Chicago, just a few short years ago. I can vividly remember one grandmother who had come to see her grandchild perform in our Holiday Program. We had decided to call it something like “Songs of Light” and had placed bright coloured posters along with greenery and ribbons through the halls of the school. The grandmother began to complain before the program had even started. It was the same refrain I heard on the radio, the old “Christ is the reason for the season, children aren’t taught right these days, why when I was a girl…” Now, I’m all for respecting my elders, but on this occasion I felt like this woman had something to learn from her grandchild. I personally escorted her to a seat in the front of the auditorium and told her that I hoped she enjoyed the show.

This grandmother, along with the rest of the audience was treated to music and stories from around the world. In the course of an hour they watched the children tell the tales of their own families’ traditions of light, one child telling an ancient folk tale about the longest night of the year, another telling the story of the miracle of Chanukah, another lighting the candles of Kwanzaa and another explaining how the Christmas treeis filled with the symbolism of both nature and of Christ.

I’d love to say that the grandmother ran up to me afterward, hugging me and exclaiming that she was changed by the event, but the truth is I never saw her again. What I did see when it was over was my small little music room in the drafty upstairs of an old building in Chicago filled with laughing, singing children, spinning dreidels, munching on Christmas cookies or sweet corn bread, crinkling the gold wrappers from Chanukah geld and having a joyful time. That is where true light resides.

In some countries it was once traditional for menorahs to be placed on the outside of a home, near the door. I have seen some of them displayed in the Jewish Museum in NYC. They are beautiful little altars of light and I like to imagine how they might have looked, sparkling in the dark night, sharing light with those passing by. Because of the fear of persecution the menorahs were brought inside, first being placed in windows and then being hidden away to secret and protected places inside the home.

Around the same time as I heard the letter of complaint on the CBC, I was sent a forwarded email detailing an account of an interview with Billy Graham's daughter. Evidently she was asked why God would allow the events of 9/11 to happen. The email stated that she said that we, as a people had turned our backs to God (by not teaching Christianity in schools and so on) and that He, God, was now simply doing the same to us, turning away from the world since the world doesn’t care for Him. Again, I was saddened with the narrowness of this kind of thinking! There is more to this world than Christianity. The lack of said Christianity is not the reason for all ills, (it is just a bigoted, convenient excuse). I would argue that the misinterpretation of Christianity, and the holding of the mere name of that religion (or any other single religion) over another person’s beliefs is what brings about fear, intolerance and strife. It is such thinking that forces those who are not Christian to bring their “lights”, (their spirit of being) inside and hide them from the rest of the world.

Tonight is the longest night of the year and with so much fear, disease, poverty and war in the world it is doubly dark. It is my hope that we might all light not just a candle to that which created us, but that we might light the fire within and bring it into the open. Don’t let ignorance continue to feed on itself. We are all a part of each other. Put your light on the outside, bring a torch, run.