Christmas Lights, and What They Really Mean

Last week our volunteer light-up crew put up Christmas lights in and around our condo building, something they do every year. For centuries, people have displayed special lights at Christmas, a clever tradition designed to offset the darkness of winter. It’s the one of the few Christmas customs I enthusiastically embrace.

Like many people of my generation I grew up on a farm, in my case, an isolated Canadian prairie homestead. Growing up in the 1940s and 1050s, before electricity found its way to our outpost home, I woke up in the dark during winter, and went to bed in the dark. The only light available to us was a kerosene lamp, a flashlight, and the light from our constantly burning wood stove.

The light that illuminated our lives

We read in the circle of light around our kitchen table, and we played outside in lantern light, sometimes using battery-powered flashlights to find our way around the house and farmyard. In summer, we experienced the northern phenomena of 17 hour daylight, but on winter nights, when darkness lasted 17 hours, we played outside by flashlight or moonlight, using the light from the farmhouse windows as our beacon. On clear nights, we could look up and see millions of stars in the night sky, delighting in the wonders of the constellations and the Milky Way.

Once a week, we would go into town, where we would see the miracle of electricity shine from the shop windows—indoor lights brighter and sharper than we could ever have imagined. At Christmas, there were colored lights, single strands of spun sugar arranged gingerly on lampposts or store fronts, glowing faintly through the falling snow.

But it’s only decades later, during my seventies, that I fully appreciate the real miracle—the night sky, illuminated by millions of celestial bodies, unobscured by the interference of artificial light.

The miracle of electric light

Electricity was discovered during the early 1800s, and came into common use during the early 1900s. Since then, humans have proliferated every corner of the planet with electric light, and gravely affected our capacity to see the stars.

Today, I learn that only 20% of the world’s population has ever seen a star-filled night sky. With most people living in cities, where artificial light dominates, 80% of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way. Fewer than a dozen stars can be seen on a clear night, although in rural areas, 2,500 stars may be visible. In the suburbs, where artificial light is less dominant, only 200 to 300 can be seen.

I am stunned by these statistics, realizing how quickly, in the short span of the history of mankind, the sight of millions of stars, our connection to the universe, has been taken away. It’s unthinkable to me that we have subjected our planet to what we now call light pollution, and forever changed the sky as we used to see it.

How some are trying to save the sky

In a response to a concern among astronomers world wide, two photographers, Harun Mehmedinovic and Gavin Heffernan, have traveled North America, exploring the country’s magnificent night skies. In an attempt to document the sky where dark prevails, they have prepared a book and time-lapse video where people can view what they can no longer see in areas where they live.

Reclaiming the night skies the earth enjoyed for billions of years, and revealing to us the “vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space,and the austerity of stars.”, the pair are working to make us more aware of the universe we inhabit, saying:

“It’s so easy to take for granted, or just say that the night sky is a pretty thing you can live without, but we started to talk about it and realized the connection is more profound than just beauty.”

Their project, and more information about the astounding book and time-lapse video can be found here.

Another astronomer Dr. Charles Liu , an astrophysics professor at the University of New York’s College of Staten Island, is, like most astronomers, concerned that star-gazers are finding viewing the night sky more difficult. He understands the significance of this, and maintains that there are many rewards for scanning the skies on any given summer night, saying, “It gives you a sense of where you are in the universe.”

You can find more about his work here.

And, back in Victoria

In my corner of the world, across the Victoria harbor, where I live, I can see the British Columbia Parliament buildings and the famous Empress Hotel. These iconic buildings, usually arrayed in millions of clear lights, are now wreathed in colored Christmas lights, sparkling festively across the water. It’s breathtaking, and I never tire of looking at it.

But the pleasure is bittersweet—I’m constantly reminded of the view I had as a little girl, stepping out of the house and looking up on a clear night, seeing the celestial wonders of the night. And on a winter’s night, seeing the Aurora Borealis, pulsing and snapping across the sky, its display an expression of the mystery and majesty of the universe.

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20 Responses to Christmas Lights, and What They Really Mean

  1. Barry Dym says:

    Every summer for about 30 years I went to the Sierra Nevada Mountains for backpacking. We’d go out, beyond the tree line to about 11,000 feet, and stay for a week. Every night the sky was immense and filled with stars.

  2. Rummuser says:

    That reminds me to get out one night just to see the sky. I have not done that in years!

  3. Clive says:

    As a kid I lived on the edge of our village, which was surrounded by agricultural land, and I used to love looking up at the clear night sky, unimpeded by artificial light. Thanks for reminding me of those times 😊

  4. What a wonderful, thoughtful entry! I enjoyed this so much!
    My Mom grew up with kerosene lamps, and wouldn’t go back to that for anything!
    I love the night sky, we see it fairly well from our Rideau Camp, as we are not near any urban areas. We even see stars at our home in town, they grew fainter when a rental complex went in one street, with street lights we can read by at night from two streets away. A new similar rental complex is going to be built on the environmentally protected area behind us as well, the local government rezoned the area to accomodate the developer, and it will have lights that we can read by on the other side of the house… goodbye starry nights!
    I love Christmas lights in my house, and have been know to keep them lit each night until the end of February, to combat the dreariness of winter greys and blacks.

    Your writing has taken me back to winter nights at my Granny and Grandpa’s house, in Parry Sound District in Ontario, when the only light at night came from the kitchen window, as we played in the snow in the yard. We used to lie in the snow, making snow angels, and get lost in time, lying there in the coldness, gazing up into the sky, listening to the beautiful white silence.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      A very evocative comment, Maggie! The memory of playing in the snow, making snow angels, is still with me. “The beautiful white silence” should be experienced by everyone in this busy, noisy and overly well lit society. Maybe then, people would re-think how we live, and why we do some of the things we do! Thank you for your wonderful entry!

  5. I love this post! Our Christmas tradition is to drive around our little mountain town on Christmas Eve to see all the lights, then drive the few miles up in to the mountains to see the sky. The best of both.

    My favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon is the two of them looking at the night sky, in complete awe. As they walk back to the house Hobbes says, “It makes you wonder why humans think they are such big stinking deals.” The last scene is Calvin sitting in an easy chair looking at the TV, saying, “That’s why we have our appliances.”

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You really do have the best of all worlds! Very handy to have the night sky so accessible as well as the lights! Calvin and Hobbes is a HUGE favorite of mine! I’m so glad you frequently publish it.

  6. peter j says:

    My sister lives in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal. One summer, we went outside and looked up. Far from any city or village, the sky was pitch black and then, there it was; the Milky Way. Sadly, I was 60 years old when I saw it for the first time. It was amazing. “Look up, way up” says the proverb. I had a quick glance at God.. Thanks for the article.. P&L

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Very well said, Peter! Unfortunately, you would have to drive outside of your home city to see the night sky these days!

  7. virginiafair says:

    As you know, I love NYC, having grown up in Manhattan so I’m in the minority among yoru readers when I say, give me City Lights any day. But even here where I now live, exiled 55 or so miles north of the city, I must say clear nights with the stars full of stars is enough to take my breath away and stop me in my tracks – star stuck, I guess you could say.
    It’s funny you should post this now at this particular moment since last night we had a mysterious mini power outage from about shortly after midnight until sometime early this morning. It was limited to my immediate area, a fact I discovered when I went outside on my deck and noticed that although the overhead sky was dark, it being an overcast night, all the surrounding hills were outlined in the glow of light pollution.

    Don’t think me as being critical, but as an alumni of the extensive CUNY system, I have to let you know its the City University College of Staten Island. :}

  8. Derrick John Knight says:

    This reminds me of one of my earliest memories, of my Dad lifting me up to see the stars.

  9. Still the Lucky Few says:

    I’m so glad that you can see the stars from your residence on clear nights. You have the best of all worlds—as you know, I envy you your proximity to NYC! Your observation about seeing the light pollution during your power outage is typical for large cities, I’m sure. And City University College of Staten Island it is! Thanks, Virginia.

  10. Hi Diane! Thank you for this post and the reminder to look up and cherish the stars while we can. I’m fortunate that we can still see stars at night where I live–not as many, nor as clear–but I’m well aware that more populated areas are overrun by light pollution. Even better is when we go up to the mountains in the summer and can still see the Milky Way very clearly. I agree that looking up at the stars on a regular basis is something that ties us to the Earth and our place in the cosmos. That should never be taken for granted. Thanks again for the reminder. ~Kathy

  11. Still the Lucky Few says:

    I’ve made a pledge to myself to drive out into the country and view the stars at least once a month–it will do wonders for my sense of perspective! I like your phrase, “something that ties us to the earth and our place in the cosmos”. So well said!

  12. Big John says:

    I wish that my childhood memories of the night sky were so peaceful. Mine are of London in WWII … Searchlights and the flashes of anti-aircraft guns. Now, I’m lucky enough to I look out at the stars over the North Sea off the Kent coast of England.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I grew up far away from the madness of WWII, and consider myself so lucky to do so! Your current view of the sky sounds so much better!

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