I have been rereading an old counter-culture classic, Demian by Herman Hesse. I remember wading through it in a Twentieth Century Lit class in the mid-60s. It is a story about a young man’s journey of self-discovery and his relationship with a person who focuses his life along the way. The book uses light and dark imagery in describing one world of security and certainty and another universe of dissipation and chaos.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Advent, the season of light, reaches its culmination in the celebration of Christmas. It is a season of hope and certainty. But life is interwoven with both light and dark, good and evil, security and chaos.
Christmas is the scent of a freshly cut spruce carried over the shoulder and set in a wooden stand with snow dripping on a hardwood floor. It is the crunch, crunch and squeak of buckle boots on snow at five degrees on the way to midnight mass. It is also seeing your breath in your bedroom as you struggle trying to decide whether you want to risk a brief chill while you throw on a robe and slippers and race to the living room where presents are spread under a tree.
The more obvious aspects of Christmas are the commercial ones, distorting for a time those images that make it part of the realm of light. There is the feast after church services, and true to melting-pot America, Lute Fisk and lefse. I still marvel at my Polish father’s capacity for the delicacy.
Who can forget Santa Claus actually coming to the door this year, handing out presents rather than rushing to a frosty window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Reindeer? We always wondered why the sack looked like one of our bed sheets.
As time passes, the realm of light changes. Finding out that the rotund visitor is a generous neighbor is a setback. Financial limitations imposed by the growing demands of children make the presents more practical: a shirt, a pair of pants, instead of a truck or new doll. The strain of family reunion at Holiday times occasionally gives indications that not all is warm and wonderful. And as religion serves, it can also constrain, binding us to a limited perspective rather than freeing us to see the world in different ways.
We come to discover that the realm of darkness tempers the world of light. It is spoken in colors of gray, ambiguous and fuzzy. The realm of light is all-encompassing – I am taken care of. The world of darkness teaches us I must take care of myself. As myths tumble, a colder, fresher wind begins to blow toward us. The pain of death, loss of friendship and overtaxed marriages makes us value those times when there is clarity.
Moments of light and dark times really are different sides of the same coin. If we didn’t have both, we would end up stuck in a reality that has little basis in fact. Life is neither good nor bad – it is.