Holiday lights at Edaville.

Where did the tradition of Christmas lights come from? Why do we light artificial candles in our windows and deck our homes in strings of white or brightly-colored bulbs? This modern convention is actually based on very old ways – bringing light to the shortest days of the year, and marking the Winter Solstice, which occurs here in the northern hemisphere on December 21 or 22 (the exact time varies slightly from year to year).

Certainly you’ve noticed how the sun sets a little earlier and comes up a little later each day as we head into November and December. By the middle of the twelfth month, many of us are leaving for work before the sun rises and returning home long after it has set. But we know that this is temporary – that the days will again grow longer . . . and warmer too. Once the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, has passed, daylight hours will increase, and continue to grow throughout the first half of the new year.

Since ancient times, cultures worldwide have considered the Winter Solstice a time for gathering together. Typical late-December rituals include holidays, festivals and celebrations of rebirth, mostly centered on the life cycle, so to speak, of the sun. For example, the Druids viewed the solstice as the time of death of the “old” sun and the birth of a new one, the beginning of the solar year. In the third century, the Roman Emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the birthday of the “Invincible Sun;” this was only part of a more elaborate Winter Solstice celebration. In the year 273, the Christian church selected this same day to represent the birthday of Jesus.

Anthropological studies have concluded that some early tribes feared that, as the days grew shorter and shorter in late fall, the sun would continue to wane, eventually leaving them in permanent darkness. So when the days began to grow incrementally longer once the solstice had passed, there was reason for celebration.

Winter celebrations had a practical purpose as well. The growing season was over. In order to survive the winter and early spring, a community would have to rely on what foods it had saved and stored, as well as what it could obtain by hunting and foraging. Generally, livestock were slaughtered at this time so that they would not have to be fed through the winter. So you can see why this was a time for feasting – it was perhaps the only time of the year that the people could eat fresh meat. In addition, beer and wine made from crops grown earlier in the year had finished their fermentation processes and were ready to consume. If that wasn’t enough reason for having a party, the threat of not living through the winter made it all the more compelling.

Nowadays we have modern conveniences that ensure, for most of us, fresh food in the fridge and the pantry throughout the year. Yet the Winter Solstice and the holidays that fall close to it (e.g. Christmas, Hanukah, Ramadan, Yule, New Year’s) are still opportunities to feast, to celebrate, to bring light to the darkness.

As much as we enjoy them, incandescent Christmas lights are not the most eco-friendly way to bring light to the darkness. Consider the new LED holiday lights, which look them same when lit, but use much less energy. If you’re curious (or simply aiming to be more frugal) you can calculate the cost of your own holiday display. Search online for an energy cost calculator for Christmas decorations, such as the one at

Or consider this alternative to Christmas lights, borrowed from Latin American culture. The luminaria, or farolito, is another way to brighten the dark days and nights. Made from small brown or white paper bags partially filled with sand, illuminated from within with a tea candle, farolitos are a Christmas Eve tradition, arranged in rows for maximum effect. You can line your driveway or the sidewalk in front of your home with farolitos, and invite your neighbors to do the same.

Happy Solstice!


By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
December 2009

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit To browse 13 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit