Don’t believe the critics who go on about the crass commercialism of Christmas.
And don’t believe the religious people, either, who fervently tell you that their brand of religion is “the reason for the season.”
Oh yes, all of that is wrapped up in Christmas (pun intended), there’s no doubt. But what’s really important – the real reason for the season – is the same as it’s been in the Northern Hemisphere almost since the beginning of human history.
It’s a dark, gloomy time of year, and we need the light. It’s no coincidence that virtually all northern festivals connected to the winter solstice, religious or cultural, involve lots of twinkling lights. The religions may change, and marketeers may overlay everything with commercialism, but the underlying reason for our traditions is constant, and simple: light.
So I went downtown a few days ago, looking for it. And found it everywhere, because if there’s one thing those corporations can afford, it’s to make their building decorations pretty elaborate. That’s what I’d been counting on.
Case in point. My favourite place in recent years has been 145 King Street West, here in Toronto. They decorate their lobby and the entire underground complex beneath it with one of the most creative designs I’ve seen anywhere. They take an entire string of round red lights and clump them together so they look like a cluster of red berries. These clusters nestle all through their trees, garlands, and wreaths. They use LED lights, so the energy usage probably isn’t bad, and the result is a lot of quite beautiful decorations and a gazillion lights. Very happy-making.
Meanwhile, the Exchange Tower replicates the type of balls that hang on Christmas trees – except that they’re huge. The Tower has a very high lobby ceiling on the main floor, over a wide opening overlooking the concourse below, and the huge blue and silver balls hang in that space. It’s fun to look straight up from down there, but even from the main floor, those decorations are glittery and delicate.
First Canadian Place has a similar open floor arrangement in a wider space. They decided this year on a bright, sparkly, sort of metallic Christmas ball/solar system look.
Scotia Plaza, always going for the elegance, went entirely with white decorations and lights on dark trees. And they added another festive element, the day I was downtown: a free noon-hour concert by the Barra MacNeils! Scotiabank is the sponsor of the family Celtic singing group’s Christmas tour. The group was to appear at the Danforth Music Hall that evening. But we visitors were treated to a great sneak peek that filled all the listeners with cheer and seasonal spirit.
Because that’s another age-old element of the solstice time. All through history, people have gathered together at this time of year for feasting and singing, probably induced by the need to find a defence against the potential loneliness and the literal darkness of the season. We didn’t have the feast, but we sure had the singing. And the clapping and foot-stomping in the audience, with a brief treat of line dancing on the stage to polish things off. And Lucy, the lone female member of the group, gave us goosebumps of bliss as she perfectly hit the extremely high note in the chorus of ‘O Holy Night.’ That song alone was worth the entire trip downtown.
So I got exactly what I needed that day: the coming-together with other people for some solstice companionship, and the brightness – the downright prettiness – of the lights in all the buildings.
If you ignore everyone else’s motives for the season – both the commercialism and the religious clamour – the companionship and the light still serve the purpose they have served for thousands of years. They push back against the darkest time of year, and help keep the human spirit burning brightly, as the twinkling lights signify the rebirth of the sun, that even now begins to turn back toward us with its promise of summer brilliance in just a few months.