We had a power outage one night a few weeks ago, when my children were in the bathtub and my husband was working late at the office. I managed to dress the children in the darkness before I went to find some candles. When my husband arrived home a bit later, I was telling them a story in the candlelit bedroom. My husband raised his hands and made a shadow puppet rabbit on the wall, and then a bird flying across the half-lit ceiling. My children were enraptured. Do it again, Daddy, they said. We all tried it then, and what started out as something of a frightening experience for my children turned magical by the time they settled down to go to sleep.
The lights went on again sometime after midnight, but the evening has settled into my children’s imagination, something they’ve talked about many times since.
Remember the night we made shadow puppets? Remember the night when Daddy lit all the candles and it was so dark? When can we do that again?
The event made me think about how few times we truly experience darkness in our modern lives. True darkness, like true silence, is a rare thing. And yet I think my children, and the children inside all of us, hearken back to some distant ancestral memory…winter nights made magical by storytellers spinning tales in the darkness, the only lights the stars and the embers of a fire around which everyone gathers, seeking warmth. There is something magical for me about such a scene, people clustered together for heat and light, rather than scattered to their various corners of the house, to their various devices and diversions and pursuits. Since that night, I’ve tried to think of more ways to bring this feeling into our home, while at the same time accepting and even honoring the encroaching darkness of the coming winter season.
A moment of darkness: As the days shorten, and we eat our dinner after dark, I like to turn out the electric lights and then light a beeswax candle at the center of our table, a single point of light in the surrounding darkness. As I light the candle, I say the following verse that I learned from my son’s preschool teacher:
Though daylight wanes, our flames burn bright; Our candles glow in darkest night.
We share a moment of silence in this circle of candlelight, and then we may talk about what we are grateful for, or of someone we miss or want to send special blessings to. I find that this interlude seems to draw us closer, and brings a mood of reverence to our table and a sense of gratitude for the meal we are about to share. On some nights we eat the entire meal by candlelight, and something about that circle of light within the surrounding blanket of darkness seems to nourish us as we face the coming season.
An hour of darkness: Lately, I’ve also tried to honor the darkness with a special moment before bedtime, extending a ritual we’ve followed in past years during the Advent season. I light a candle in the kitchen and lead my children upstairs to bed by candlelight. Then we use the candle to light another in a special glass fronted lantern on a shelf in my daughter’s room. We say our prayers or blessings by candlelight, or briefly talk over the events of the day. There is something about the candlelight that seems to invite my children to voice wishes or concerns they might otherwise find hard to share.
I’m also experimenting with reading stories by candlelight, or, better yet, using this candlelit interval to invent a story, making a creative leap into storytelling that feels easier in the darkness. With my children’s help and input, I’ve recently been shaping one story about a fairy and a magic raccoon. The story takes twists and turns that I would never have expected, helped along by their suggestions (We need two red haired princes, one good and one bad. We need a factory that builds giant Legos…) It’s a way for us to share in the act of creating, of making something from nothing, while carrying on the dreamy tradition of long winter nights.
I also find that when I finally blow out the candle, my children seem to accept the darkness, and coming sleep, as a friend, rather than as something to be feared or fought. It makes me think of another blessing I used to say for my daughter when she was a baby, a verse I found in Shea Darian’s wonderful book on family rhythms, Seven Times the Sun. It begins….
The dark comes like a blanket, Protecting us at night…
This is a season to think of darkness as a blanket, a friend, an ally, not as something to be overcome.
NOTE: Remember, adults should never leave a candle or lantern unattended, especially around children. I often keep our candle in a glass fronted lantern when I read to my children, and keep it well away from books and other things. I also keep my hair tied back. I try to teach my children that fire is both a magical and a powerful force, one that requires care, thoughtfulness, and respect.
Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.
Reference: Seven Times the Sun, Shea Darian, Gilead Press, 2001, p. 140.
First published November 7, 2010