I walk my dog at night. Through most of the year, I wake up and walk my dog after the sun has already begun to stretch out across my neighborhood. Through most of the year, I can get home from work to walk my dog before the sun has pulled the covers of the horizon over its weary head.
During those times of the year when the sun can keep me company, the walk isn’t a particularly lonely or sad practice, even if there are no other people in sight. I generally travel around places where the evidence of humanity is obvious enough, and the light of day in conjunction with distant sounds of traffic gives a sense of liveliness to my surroundings.
Walking around my well-populated neighborhood at night, on the other hand, is often an exercise in isolation. Since I live in the suburbs, I’m more than a twenty minute walk away from any businesses. Since I will usually walk my dog one last time after I come home from going out dancing, my neighbors are probably asleep while I am out wandering.
If it’s warm enough, the homes around me are dark and still when the time is so far past twilight. On occasions when there are power outages or the streetlights are broken in some fashion, I’ve walked with no company but my dog and any distant stars that happen to be winking in my direction. It’s not uncommon for my dog to find relief in near pitch darkness for three seasons of the year. She’s not shy about such things, fortunately.
Then Winter arrives for her yearly visit. Sometimes, she is graceful and considerate of the season preceding. Other years, she arrives with bluster and rudeness and shoves poor Autumn to the side. Regardless of the approach and her subsequent manner of stay, she is reliable enough in my part of the world. And Winter is rarely kind to those of us who thrive in light and warmth.
It’s often so gray and dark during this season that I commiserate with the hibernating bears and try to stay buried in my cave of comforters each morning. I purchase and use daylight bulbs (compact fluorescent, of course) to remind myself to stay awake through the gloom. I struggle to keep a positive disposition while I shiver from home to work to home to dances and back home again. I yearn for climates that never change as you might find in distant Utopian lands with names like Santa Barbara and Waikiki.
Then comes Christmas. Sometimes as early as mid-November, people around me begin to put up decorations that include lights and glowing displays. I don’t know if my neighbors are aware that candles and their substitutes are recognized in Christianity as symbolic of Jesus Christ as the Light of the World, or in Judiasm as representative of the soul. I don’t know if any of them consider the numerous stories of suffering travelers finding succor by following a distant flame to salvation. Maybe people just think the lights are pretty. I don’t begrudge that thought since I usually agree.
At night, though, the lights that people put up are announcements interrupting the stillness of a silent night. Save for the celestial examples and environmental disasters, lights are a declaration that people are alive. Fire means that we are fighting against the odds and overcoming the challenges put to us by our unsympathetic environment. We cook our food and we warm ourselves and our families. And when we take that precious combustion and set aside a small flicker to decorate our homes, we send out a message into the darkness: There are people here! I never see as much light in the night as I do in December.
I don’t care if people put single candles in their windows, or if they hang up strings of lights around their balconies. I’ve already talked about my disdain for certain overblown decorations, but that feeling doesn’t diminish my appreciation for people who hang up a light against the blanket of a black sky. At the time of the year when we are coldest and can feel the most alone, the lights we see after sunset tell us that our feelings are just fears to overcome. The lights reach out to reassure us and remind us that we are all in this together.
For all of those reasons, I love the “candles” of the Christmas season. I am glad of their silent defiance against the silent night. If she could speak, I think my silent dog would agree.