2020 draws to an end. The days grow shorter and the nights lengthen; both become colder. This year, more than any in recent memory, it appears that the coming winter will indeed be one of discontent.
The prevailing mood throughout our country and world is fearful and fractious, and there seems to be a lot that’s keeping us apart, literally and figuratively. Much of what separates us is utterly out of our control, at least to some degree. This is particularly true, for instance, regarding the pandemic; we cannot dictate others’ actions and inactions related to it and we may not draw as near to loved ones as we’d like. There also appears to be a shortage not only of toilet paper but of agreement (on just about any topic). Other examples abound.
It does not have to be so. To quote Tennyson’s Ulysses, “…though much is taken, much abides.” What abides is what connects us. What abides are our common bonds. What abides is what we share.
You see, we are united in light.
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
Human beings have acknowledged and celebrated the Winter Solstice since ancient times. In a multitude of places over thousands of years, people have held rituals, originated and continued customs, and passed stories onward. Many of these still exist today, each unique in their own way. Whether holy days or holidays, many also have a thread that joins them, born out of experiences and nature: light, and fire. As school librarians, we are perfectly poised to illuminate our students about different cultures and shared traditions; and who better to tell all the stories? This is perhaps the best deed we can do, now more than ever.
Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark.
There are many luminous picture books and excellent resources that we can share with our students to help them learn about the faiths and heritages that exist around the globe.
“In the midst of darkness, light persists.” (Mahatma Gandhi)–The festival of Diwali brings this sentiment to vibrant life. While Diwali usually occurs in late October or in November, its emphasis on light connects it to winter celebrations. It is observed by millions of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains the world over, coincides with the Hindu New Year, and honors new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. Consider Let’s Celebrate Diwali by Anjali Joshi and Tim Palin, and have a gander at this book and video from National Geographic.
“I know and I speak from experience, that even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to create light and share warmth with one another…” (Elie Wiesel)–Jewish families have commemorated Hanukkah since 165 BCE, when it was instituted by Judas Maccabeus to celebrate his victory over Antiochus IV, the king who had invaded Judaea, tried to Hellenize the Jews, and desecrated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. When the Temple was rededicated, a miracle made the lighting of eight nights’ worth of lamps possible. To discover and teach kids more about the legacy of this Festival of Lights, check out this thorough and informative short film and this funny yet factual video by actress and author Mayim Bialik; and don’t pass up the super-sweet Hanukkah Bear by Eric A. Kimmel and Mike Wohnoutka.
“Beneath the tree of light and life, a blessing at this season of Yule!” (Traditional Norse prayer)–Many traditions typically associated with Christmas actually started long before Jesus was born, originating with the winter solstice and the celebration of Yule. The Norse of Northern Europe believed that the sun was a wheel that changed the seasons, and it is thought that their word for that wheel, houl, is the origin of the word yule. At this time of year, the Norse would light bonfires and tell stories (and drink sweet ale). Among the many customs that connect Yule and Christmas are the Christmas tree, the Yule log, the decking of halls with boughs of holly, hanging mistletoe, and–you guessed it–the use of fire and candles. For a splendid Yule-related read, look to the striking The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)–For Christmas itself, and to acknowledge both the reason for the season and themes that are universal, try Room for a Little One by Martin Waddell and Jason Cockcroft. The story is a familiar one, of course; yet in this case, the tale of Christ’s birth is told from the nearby animals’ perspective. The illustrations positively glow, and the message of inclusivity and kindness is unmistakable, and always timely. Other excellent choices include the extraordinary Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou, Steve Johnson, and Lou Fancher, the classic The Night of Las Posadas by Tomie dePaola and the lovely Tree of Cranes by Allen Say, and whimsical, wonderful Native American Night Before Christmas by Gary Robinson and Jesse T. Hummingbird.
“The moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” (James Baldwin)–Kwanzaa is the youngest of the winter holidays, and was created by Professor Maulana Karenga in 1966. Held from December 26 to January 1, this first fruits festival (the name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits”) highlights African-American culture. It features the use of a kinara holding seven candles, each of which symbolizes one of the seven principles of African heritage: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). To give students a better understanding of the holiday (and perhaps encourage them to live out the principles), see the vivid The Seven Days of Kwanzaa and Seven Spools of Thread, both by Angela Shelf Medearis.
It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light.
–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
As this long post and this even longer year close, some parting words: Do the good deeds. Tell the stories. Persist. Share. Keep the faith. Love. Be a defender and conductor of light–the light in which we are all united.
Best wishes to one and all for happy holidays, however and whatever you celebrate!
Author: Lia Fisher Janosz
I am Regina Libris.
I’m…a Bibliothecaria Rebellatrix (“librarian…because Book Wizard isn’t an official job title,” at Sharon Elementary School in Alleghany County, VA) wending a way through the seven ages whilst geeking out over Shakespeare & sundry other stuff. I am rather like Hermione Granger and have “conjured” floating candles in our school library. I’m an admirer of Eowyn and would place myself somewhere in the middle of the shieldmaiden-healer spectrum. I am inimitable, I am an original, and yet I am totally #TeamHamilton (see what I did there?). I’m a student in the Longwood University School Librarianship program and an avid reader and lifelong learner (and, apparently, Mistress of the Obvious as well). Any rumors regarding me having a crush on either Stephen Colbert or Chris Martin are completely…irrefutable. That being acknowledged, I am the loyal consort of an unsung prince of Poland and very proud mother of a tornadic, talented, and talkative wunderkind girl and a happyhopper jollyjumper bouncyboy who has a memory like an elephant.