A Discussion Group of the National Storytelling Network

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Children at the Well

Tales of Holy Light: Dark Night of Solstice Inspires Multicultural Lore

By Lawn Griffiths, Arizona Tribune, December 22, 2001

Reprinted by permission.

Advent candles burned patiently throughout the evening, yet the smaller Kwanzaa candles were largely spent by the time storyteller Wendy Miller was lighting her menorah to mark the final night of Hanukkah. Then Miller began to share a Jewish tale about how one morning, on the first day of Hanukkah, an old man could not find the menorah his family had lighted for 400 years. Had it been carefully hidden in a black sack — the same kind of sacks used to hold castoffs for the junk man? In desperation, he rushed to the village dump, dug through filth and pulled forth the menorah just in time to light it for the holiday.

For 2 hours, in a cozy church sanctuary, six interfaith storytellers tickled imaginations with crisp and rich folklore with moral endings, stories often defined by the power of light.

“I like light, but I don’t want us to forget about darkness and shadow,” the Rev. Doug Bland said during the fifth annual “Winter’s Light,” an evening of “stories of holy light” at Community Christian Church in Tempe. Always held on or near the winter solstice, the evening underscores how most religious and cultural traditions treasure light and “long for it to come into the nighttime of our lives.” “We know it is only the dark that allows us to see the stars,” Bland said. “It is only the darkness of the winter storm that allows the springtime flowers to bloom. Out of the darkness, good things come. Out of the darkness and chaos comes creation. Out of the darkness of the womb comes new life and birth.”

About 175 people arrived at twilight on Sunday and watched the church’s bright stained-glass windows gradually darken. In the semi-circle pews, they listened as a Muslim related a long, ancient story called “Three Men in a Cave” — how a sinful man manages to remember an example of goodness in his checkered life, enough of a worthy deed to prompt Allah to roll a boulder from the door of a cave in which he and his companions are trapped.

Gamal Hegazi, born in Cairo, Egypt, is education director of the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe. He explained that Muslims had just completed their annual spiritual journey between light and darkness — Ramadan. “During Ramadan, we spend most of the night praying, and during the daytime, we fast.” He explained how, because the holy month — the ninth month in the Islamic year — follows the lunar calendar, Ramadan, comes progressively earlier each year.

Miller, likewise, explained history and customs of Hanukkah, which ended its eight-day holiday Sunday. She and her daughter, Elise, sang Hanukkah songs as they displayed their menorahs and lighted them. Liz Warren, who traces her eight great-grandparents to seven northern European cultures, highlighted Celtic holiday traditions.

“Our Celtic ancestors conceived of the year as a wheel that turned around over and over again,” she said. Each of the wheel’s eight spokes represented astronomical or seasonal events, and “they charted varying amounts of light that was available.”

“For Celtic people, these two big forces — darkness and light — become personified with many, many stories,” she said. In Celtic mythology, they represent the “King of Light” and the “King of Darkness,” she said. “At the summer solstice, the King of Light is at the height of his power, but that is actually when the King of Darkness is born,” growing slowly more powerful because days progressively grow shorter. The opposite occurs at winter solstice, she said, and their powers are in balance in the spring and autumn equinoxes.

“No one holds power very long, and the power is carefully measured out,” she said.

Our ancient ancestors, she said, fought back against the King of Darkness by building bonfires, lighting candles, eating and drinking and “filling their hearts with the light of love.”

Veteran storyteller Dena Wilder, a student of Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, shared four short stories and led the audience in singing sacred music.

“A Sufi is asked to blow upon the divine spark within the heart so it creates a fire that illuminates out,” she said. One of her stories was about a mystic who had a magnificently bright light by which to study, but instead chose to read by a dim candle. That way, all the moths would swarm the bright light and leave him in peace beside his candle.

In his discussion of Kwanzaa, to be marked Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Sule Greg Wilson unleashed a series of eerie sounds from a seashell and poured water on a poinsettia as a “libation” before he shared an African story.

Kwanzaa falls on the “dead days,” days left over from a 360-day calendar, and affords a time to meditate on the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Playing a single-wire and gourd African instrument, Wilson told a story about a man who took possession of a patch of land and hired seven workers to break up the dirt clods.

The crew made amazing progress the first day. The owner went the next day to see his hired hands at work. When he found one of them singing and beating a drum while the others toiled, the owner confronted the man and fired him. The next day, it was reported that their work progress had sharply fallen. When the owner asked why, the workers explained, “We take turns breaking up the soil, and the seventh helps us move, helps the work go so much lighter with the joy of the music.”

Bland wound up the evening with a tale on how St. Francis of Assisi advised the Italian village of Gubbio about protecting itself from a vicious wolf that prowled the streets and alleys at night.

“Good people, the solution is easy: You must care for your wolf” was all he said. The next night, “a tiny hand pushed food out into the street” for the wolf. Someone did so the next night and the next. “Soon everybody had a hand in feeding the wolf, and the killing stopped,” Bland said.

For more information contact Doug Bland, (480) 967-5266 or email doug.bland@tempeccc.com.

For an article about the 1998 Winter's Lights program, click here.