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Festivals of Light inspire universal hope

The Winter Solstice is the astronomical event that has inspired ancient festivals of light all over the world. At the end of the shortest day and longest night of the year, ancient people could conquer their fears of the darkness because they knew warmer weather would come again. Return-of-the-sun celebrations can be found in most civilizations on earth, and this column will describe some festivals that are not well known in Western European culture.

The ancient Chinese celebrated Dong Zhi greeting the arrival of winter with a harvest-home festival. Farm workers return from the fields to enjoy foods they had prepared including Tang Yuan (sweet rice balls). They held a second festival for the first full moon in January marking a Lunar New Year. Wise inventor Zhuge Liang put candles inside rice paper held in bamboo frames a century before Christ was born. The lanterns called “Kongming” floated on water to inspire hope. Modern Chinese festivals of light now include amazing dance productions in great cities like New York. (See Shen Yun Performing Arts in New York on line.)

In India people celebrate Diwali (meaning lamp). Their lanterns bring love and hope often in memory of dead loved ones. Hindus use floating lanterns to symbolize the light of hope in uncertain times like the fall of the year, the coming of war, or the threat of disease. Lamps are also powerful symbols learning and magic in India.

In Thailand where Siamese customs are still honored, Loi Krathongis the Festival of Light. An ancient Buddhist epic tells the story of a lamp with the power to invoke human compassion and universal love. Candles float in baskets on the rivers and carry away anxiety while participants focus on mindfulness.

In Peru where winter comes in June for the southern hemisphere, the ancient Incas celebrated Intiraymi. To honor their sun god, they had feasting and sacrificed animals. At an earlier time humans were also sacrificed also, but Spaniards banned the holiday. It was revived with mock sacrifices in 20th century.

In Arizona Native Americans still practice the ancient Hopi Indian traditional celebration called Soya. At winter solstice Hopis danced for purification and gave gifts. Hopis welcomed Kachinas as protective mountains spirits that kept them well all winter. The harvest was safely stored, and they, like other people on earth, felt they could feast freely. (For more solstice information see “Festivals of Light” online.)

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