Merry and bright— Celebrate traditions of light
- Published: December 20, 2018
As each year comes to a close, the village — and the world outside — celebrates a variety of holidays, traditions and rituals, creating a diversity of celebration throughout Yellow Springs during the darkest time of the year. Despite the darkness, through the celebration of Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas and Kwanzaa, villagers take time in December to remember and consider the light — each in their own ways.
At the home of villagers Daniele Norman and David Seitz, a group of people from the YS Havurah met to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah on Dec. 2. It was a small gathering of around a dozen — the Havurah typically has a larger gathering at the home of Abi Katz-Stein on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah — but some folks would be traveling then. Not only that, but Hanukkah, the date of which is determined by the Hebrew Calendar, came a little earlier than usual this year.
“Hanukkah kind of whips you in the face when it’s so early,” said Daniele Norman, as she set out plates and spoons.
Hanukkah celebrates the successful Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid Empire in 164 BCE, led by Jewish priest Judah Maccabee, who restored the temple as a place of worship after the battle. Maccabee wanted to relight the lamp in the temple, though there was only enough oil to last one day — and miraculously, the lamp stayed burning for eight days, until more oil could be procured. Thus the lighting of the menorah — one candle for each day the oil lasted, and one extra, a “helper candle,” to light them all.
“Well, it’s a legend,” said Celia Diamond. “The Maccabee rebellion is a historical fact — the rest of it is kind of embroidery. But that’s why we always eat latkes and donuts — because of the oil they’re cooked in.”
Rebecca Mark said that, over her years of celebrating Hanukkah, the traditional latkes — potato pancakes — have become more experimental, with folks adding different vegetables into the mix, or using sweet potatoes.
“I like that very much,” she said. “Jews are all over the place — we’re adaptable.”
As if on cue, Abi Katz-Stein emerged from the kitchen bearing a platter of confections covered with chocolate and toasted marshmallows — s’mores latkes.
The table being laid, those assembled began to light the menorahs — there were several, all brought by party-goers, as is tradition — which were given pride of place in the dining room window of the Norman-Seitz residence. After they were lit, the group sang traditional Hanukkah blessings, and Katz-Stein offered a brief summary of Hanukkah’s core significance: “They tried to kill us, we survived — let’s eat!”
Seated around the table and enjoying the various treats, the group listened as David Seitz explained one of his family’s favorite traditions.
“There’s these special little cardboard glasses, and when you put them on, it turns every point of light you see into a Jewish star,” he said. “We would give them to our kids when we would go up to Temple Shalom.”
“They would see the Christmas lights through the glasses,” added Norman, “and suddenly, all the Christmas lights would become Jewish.” She passed the glasses — which looked like the paper 3D glasses of yore — around for all to try.
After eating, the group got down to business playing dreidel, a game involving a small spinning top. Those gathered played with dried beans rather than money, winning and losing beans as the rounds went on. Behind them, the candles on the menorahs continued to burn. It was difficult to find candles for the menorahs this year, everyone agreed — even Tom’s didn’t carry enough.
“Of course, it’s approaching the Winter Solstice,” said Diamond, “and it gets dark early. I think everybody’s hungry for more light.”
Yule and Winter Solstice
Every year, villager Barbara Krabec and some of her friends gather for a private celebration of Yule and the Winter Solstice, this year on Dec. 21. The group of friends, who follow Pagan traditions, call themselves a “crone circle,” with “crone” being the honorary term for an older woman. Sipping a warm drink at the Emporium, Krabec mused that “crone circle” was a more appropriate attribution than “coven.”
“We’re not part of any established Wiccan group — we’re just sort of freeform,” she said.
Krabec said she’s been a practicing Pagan for 30 years or more, having begun her practice in California, where many of the major writers of the modern Pagan movement lived at the time. She was drawn to it by the fact that, unlike so many other religious traditions, this one emphasizes a supreme goddess.
“Because Wicca believes in the balance of nature, they always have a goddess and a god acknowledged in the rituals.”
Wicca and other contemporary Pagan movements take their cues from the European cultures of old. Yule, which is typically celebrated on the Winter Solstice, originated from the Germanic peoples — and when Christianity came to that part of the world, “Yule” was eventually renamed “Christmastide.”
Because of this, much of what many people do to celebrate this time of year, whether Pagan or Christian or neither, is wrapped up in Yule tradition.
“The tree is definitely a Pagan nature symbol,” said Krabec. “It goes back before Christian times in Northern Europe. The wreath on the door — symbol of the unending year. Decking the halls with plants, holly and ivy. These are all Yule.”
As for the particular rituals that Krabec and the rest of the crone circle incorporate into their Yule celebrations, she says most Wiccan rituals generally begin with the casting of a circle.
“Some people see it as casting an actual magic barrier, and some people see it as setting aside this time and space for something spiritual that’s outside of, but also connected to, our real lives,” she said.
The Yule celebration proceeds with readings from Pagan literature, both modern and classic. A Yule Log will usually be burned. Then the group might sing songs together; Krabec said that Pagans have their own songs, but that some Christmas songs have been co-opted and rewritten to more accurately fit the occasion — like “Dancing in a Wiccan Wonderland,” or “Silent Night, Solstice Night.”
“That one has the same reverent feeling of peace and joy — it’s just that we’re singing about the natural world,” Krabec said. “And I like to say that the only Pagan Yule carol that still exists is ‘Deck the Halls’ — that one never mentions Christmas, only ‘Yuletide,’ and gifts and cheer and a Yule log.”
For many years, the members of the crone circle would give gifts to one another for Yule, but that particular tradition has changed.
“We’re at that stage of life when nobody needs anything else,” Krabec said. “So we all contribute some money and then decide what charity we want to give it to.”
For those who don’t celebrate Yule, the Winter Solstice typically only marks the shortest day of the year, and the official beginning of winter. For Krabec and the crone circle, however, the date marks the beginning of the return of the sun, after months of growing darkness.
“As far as we’re concerned, the Winter Solstice is the real reason for the season,” she said.
For as long as Jeanna GunderKline can remember, she’s been attending the annual 11 p.m. Christmas Eve candlelight service on Dec. 24 at First Presbyterian Church.
“I’ve always had some kind of role, ever since I could talk,” she said.
As an adult — and clerk of Session, the church’s governing body — she says it’s her favorite part of the holiday. During the service, people gather to sing Christmas hymns, and to hear a brief message from the pastor and to pray.
For GunderKline, however, and for many who attend, the highlight of the service comes near its end. Before those gathered in the church’s sanctuary are released out into the village at midnight — Christmas Day — everyone takes a small taper candle. The lights begin to dim, and those gathered begin to form a circle around the sanctuary, as the candles are lit.
“It feels like true community,” said GunderKline. “Each person lights the candle of the person next to them with their own flame until it makes one full circle of light. As each person has their candle lit, I like to look around as each face lights up. I know almost every face.”
After every candle is lit, those in the circle begin to sing the traditional carol “Silent Night.”
“And my mom, who has a beautiful singing voice, has always sung this descant to ‘Silent Night,’” said GunderKline. A descant, in this case, is a lone voice that sings a different, accompanying melody.
“Her voice rings out over all the other voices,” she said. “That’s Christmas to me.”
With First Presbyterian Church currently without a permanent pastor since the autumn departure of the Rev. Aaron Saari, some things are still in flux for the congregation. Guest pastor Ruth Paulus is stepping up to lead the candlelight service while the church continues to try to fill the post.
Despite the uncertainty of the church’s future leadership, GunderKline is sure about a few things: the candlelight, the faces and her mother’s voice.
“[My family] always tells her, ‘You have to sing it. It’s not Christmas until you sing it.”
When villager Bomani Moyenda’s children were small, the family would celebrate Christmas — and beginning the day after, they would begin their seven-day celebration of Kwanzaa. They would start each day by lighting the kinara, which holds seven candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
“We would light a candle every day, and we would kind of gather around and discuss the principle for that day,” said Moyenda. “We’d just talk about it, what it meant, try to identify where we could recognize it and practice it in our family or out in the community.”
With Moyenda’s children now grown, he celebrates Kwanzaa at the village’s annual public celebration — to be held this year on Dec. 29 at the Bryan Center. He remembers bringing the idea for a Kwanzaa celebration to African American Cross-Cultural works, or AACW, of which he was a member, more than 25 years ago.
“I had attended some other Kwanzaa celebrations before we started, and I took the idea to Faith Patterson and discussed it and talked about doing it in the community,” he said. The first villagewide Kwanzaa celebration was held in December of 1992.
Kwanzaa originally sprang to life in 1966 through the efforts of African-American professor, activist and author Maulana Karenga as a way to honor African heritage in African-American culture. Kevin McGruder, one of this year’s Kwanzaa organizers, said that’s what makes this holiday unique — it’s one that was created with intention and purpose, to connect African Americans with their African heritage.
“It’s a particular African-American tradition, but with West African roots,” he said. “But if you were to go to Africa, it’s unlikely that you would see a Kwanzaa celebration — you might see harvest festivals that have some of the same elements.”
The village’s Kwanzaa celebrations begin with libation and by acknowledging ancestors with the pouring of water — McGruder said this is common in West African traditions.
“Often the audience is encouraged to call out the names of ancestors,” he said. “And that’s linked to African religious traditions, where it’s believed that when people die, their spirits continue to watch over the living, and as long as we’re able to call out their names, those spirits remain present.”
Moyenda said this practice also extends to the recently deceased: “People will identify anyone from family members who’ve passed on to iconic folks, celebrities and well-known historical figures.”
Kwanzaa typically lasts for seven days, but the local celebration condenses the holiday’s elements into one evening. The event features speakers, entertainment and the lighting of the kinara candles. Everything ends with a potluck meal.
“That’s an important part of Kwanzaa celebrations: sharing fellowship and food,” said McGruder.
Though Kwanzaa is intended to be a space for African Americans to learn about and connect with African culture, the village Kwanzaa celebration has always been open to anyone who wants to attend, regardless of ethnicity.
“I think Faith [Patterson] had this creed — kind of like the AACW creed — that everybody counts. So we just decided to open it up to everybody who wanted to attend,” said Moyenda. “Everybody has something unique to bring to Kwanzaa.”