With Thanksgiving behind me, I look forward to the familiar build-up to Christmas and the winter solstice. Like most people, I get a little frazzled by the material obligations and logistics of the holiday. But that is easily overridden by the season’s many pleasures, by the traditions and rituals that infuse this dark time of the year with light, warmth and love.
It is part of the charm of the season that, like an Advent calendar, most of our holiday rituals follow an order of some sort. And it helps that Douglas is an organized type who knows where things are, makes plans and doesn’t stray far from tried-and-true traditions. Already, he has brought home a pretty Christmas tree for our living room. But it won’t go in the house yet, because that isn’t what happens next.
What happens next — sometime this week — is the placing of a single, white, electric candle in each window of our house. I lose count each year, but there are about 25 windows in this big old place. We dust off each sill and use blue painter’s tape, which peels away easily without ripping up the paint, to stabilize the lightweight plastic candlestick on the center of the sill. Because the house was recently rewired to meet modern electrical codes, there is an outlet in easy reach of every candle, so we don’t have messy tangles of extension cords to deal with.
At dusk, or whenever the first one of us gets home after our day’s work, we move from room to room and turn on the candles. Their light shines out into the night. Lit up like this, our hillside home becomes a quiet homecoming beacon, a sight our neighbors say brings them pleasure and assurance. Inside, the candles cast their warm glow into our rooms.
Like generations of Mainers before me, I find deep satisfaction in pushing back the shadows of winter and sending small shafts of light out into the long, cold night. But light has the power to cheer me in other seasons as well.
Back in the spring of 2012, I moved into a rustic summer rental on the quiet western side of Mount Desert Island, where I had started a new job. It was really just the unfinished upstairs of an old garage, fixed up with a kitchen sink and a small gas range. The bathroom was accessed by a careful trip down the stairs, along a path through boxes and belongings piled on the concrete floor.
I came to love this little hideaway, but my first night there was tough. For one thing, there were mice. I heard them scuffling in the rafters and found fresh droppings in the kitchen drawers. I’m not afraid of mice, exactly, but I don’t like them eating my food, nesting in my socks or squiggling across the floor when they think I’m not looking.
There were other problems that night, too, real and imagined. Bats, maybe, or spiders, in this attic-y place. Early-onset June bugs banging at the screens. The overhead lights were dim. It was chilly. The hot water wasn’t working and the shower stall hadn’t been cleaned. There was no Internet service or cell phone reception.
But the real problem was that I was alone in this new, raw place. I had left behind my comfortable old house in Orono, with its friendly neighbors, some snacks in the fridge, a shell-shaped night-light glowing in the bathroom. My cats were in the temporary care of friends. My good old dog Lucy was with my older son for the summer. My life was in the throes of a major transition, and I felt uprooted and out of control.
But, in a moment of inspiration or divine intervention, when I was packing up my clothes I had thrown in a strand of small white lights, the kind you see on Christmas trees or in restaurant windows. When I came across it that first night, I immediately wrapped it around a rafter over the battered kitchen counter. Right away, the little white lights cheered the space and made it feel like a party. A party for one, to be sure, but festive and welcoming nonetheless. The night got better from there.
The next day, my son came down for a quick surprise visit, bringing Lucy and some flowers. Also, my Internet service got turned on. Things were looking up. I posted a photo on Facebook that evening, reaching out to the community of friends who were keeping tabs on me. Twenty people responded within minutes with encouragement, assurances and loving good humor.
“Twinkle lights make everything better,” observed my niece. And so they do.
This week, our house in Sandy Point will once again shine little bits of cheer and comfort out into the winter darkness. We’ll leave those lights up through the longest night of the year, through Christmas and into the new year, marking the passage of winter and celebrating our progress toward spring.