A hymn from 1811 provides some clues about why Christmas lights and candles are so enchanting.
There’s something magical about Christmas lights. As a child, my parents used to take me and my brothers on an annual car ride to see the houses near us with the best lights. We would make passionate cases for which house we thought was the best. Every year, during December, I counted the number of houses with lights in our neighborhood, knowing that the more houses were lit up, the closer it was to Christmas.
In St. Louis city, where we live today, there’s a neighborhood block near us that goes all-out for Christmas with house decorations, calling itself Candy Cane Lane. It’s so crowded with sightseers that you can’t park within several blocks of the street in the weeks before Christmas. It must take months of planning and effort to get all the lights up. The effort is worth it, though, for all the Christmas cheer it creates. People drive from all over to see it.
Light and darkness
In the northern hemisphere, Christmas arrives just after the darkest day of the year. Through December, it gets darker and the days shorter until, finally, as Christmas arrives it begins to brighten. In the Catholic calendar, the birth of the Savior is linked to the reappearance of the Sun.
These themes of light and dark are so prevalent that we’ve come to associate the holiday with candles and lights — think of the Advent Wreath, luminaries, Christmas candlelight Masses, and lights outside houses and inside on garland and Christmas trees.
The Solemnity of the Epiphany, which falls 12 days after Christmas and commemorates the arrival of the Magi at the side of Christ, is also connected with light. One of the most recognizable symbols of Epiphany is the star in the sky that led the Magi to the Holy Family. The star was the brightest in the night sky.
“Brightest and Best”
One of the most beautiful Epiphany hymns, alluding to this star, is called “Brightest and Best.” We sing it every year in our church (happily named in honor of the Epiphany) and I hope you do, too.
Written in 1811 by Reginald Heber, the hymn wasn’t, at first, very popular. Heber wrote “Brightest and Best” as part of a larger project to improve congregational singing. His own parish happily sang the new hymns, but publishers refused to print his new hymnal. The songs didn’t see a larger market until Heber’s wife published the hymnal herself. “Brightest and Best” is one of the classics that emerged from the collection, along with “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
The first verse is all about light and dark:
Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant redeemer is laid.
This clues us in about why Christmas lights and candles are so enchanting. Light points directly to a deeply rooted hope, the sort of hope that keeps us going even through the darkest moments of our lives. The Sun is just over the horizon. The Christmas star is ascendant.
When I was a child looking at all those houses decorated in their Christmas lights, lawn reindeer, and Nativity sets, I pressed my face pressed to the car window and imagined that the people inside those houses were very happy. Maybe the parents were sitting by the fire with hot chocolate, watching the kids try to guess what was in the presents under the tree. Maybe they were watching a Christmas movie together, or getting reading to visit relatives. Those Christmas lights were shouting for joy, and in their glow the things of darkness were cast away and angels fluttered joyfully in the frosty air.