In Christian churches, pastors set flame to the candles of Advent wreaths in the weeks before Christmas. Jews light the wicks of menorahs in the eight days of Hanukkah. And Rick Simmons fires up a light show of thousands of colored bulbs to a soundtrack of rock opera Christmas carols at his house in South Natomas.
Such disparate December displays have a common purpose deeply rooted in human history: to light the darkest days of winter and warm people’s hearts.
Similar rituals have happened for thousands of years. Scandinavians lit Juul logs (or Yule logs) to honor the god Thor and celebrate the lengthening of days after the winter solstice in late December. Ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia at the same time of year.
The modern Jewish festival of Hanukkah dates back nearly 2,200 years. The menorah is lit, one candle each day, to commemorate the time when Jews took back the temple in Jerusalem from the Greek-speaking Seleucid empire, and when a small container of olive oil, just enough for a day, lit the Temple for eight days.
“Miraculously that little cruse of oil lasted the entire time,” said Rabbi Mona Alfi, of Congregation B’nai Israel, a synagogue in Sacramento’s Land Park neighborhood.
“In the book of Genesis, one of the first things God does is create light,” she said. “When we talk about lighting the candle in the darkness, it’s about bringing hope and truth and knowledge into the world.”
For many Christians, the Advent wreath offers a similar candle lighting ritual. The four candles of the wreath are lit – one by one – in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The white Christ Candle often included in the center is not lit until Christmas itself.
“We light candles, one a week, to help us prepare for something so amazing and mysterious as the birth of Christ,” said the Rev. Kathy Hopner, director of children, youth and family ministries at Trinity Cathedral, an Episcopal church in midtown Sacramento. Over time, the four candles have come to represent peace, love, hope and joy, she said.
“We see the coming of Christ as the light in the darkness of the world, and it’s also at the darkest time of year,” she said.
Historians say pre-Christian Europeans used candles and boughs of pine, mistletoe and holly – green even in the cold of winter – to symbolize eternal life. By the 14th century, Germans had adopted the practice of bringing cut evergreen trees into the home as symbols of Christianity and the returning spring – a tradition their descendants brought to the United States.
Americans began decorating Christmas trees with candles in the early 19th century, according to historical accounts. It was a dangerous practice, often closely monitored with buckets of water and sand at hand. Thomas Edison’s invention of electric Christmas lights in the late 1800s made it safer to trim the tree and revolutionized the way Americans celebrate the holidays.
Today, many homeowners deck out their roof lines and outdoor trees with lights, while others go to extreme for visitors.
In Sacramento’s Fabulous 40s neighborhood, entire blocks are lined with elaborate light displays, huge reindeer statues and nativity scenes. At Cal Expo, the site of the California State Fair, the Global Winter Wonderland runs through Jan. 3 with massive lighted figures and acrobats on ice.
In South Natomas, Rick Simmons’ elaborate light displays at 2973 Mendel Way have become a Christmas tradition for neighbors and visitors from around the region over the past eight years.
The 56-year-old auto mechanic creates a computer-driven light show with tens of thousands of bulbs that flash on and off to rousing music he broadcasts over FM radio at 89.9. Watchers listen on their car radios.
The displays start on the hour from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. through New Year’s Eve. (www.rickslights.com)
In the days before Christmas around 200 people will show up each night. Even in Monday night’s rain, attendance was good, Simmons said.
“Last night I had probably about 20 cars out here in the pouring rain,” he said Tuesday. “It was quite amazing.”
Police officers and firefighters sometimes swing by to check out the light show, he said. An elderly neighbor once handed him a check to help cover utility bills and urged him to continue the Christmas show. One visitor, a large man, got out of his car and stood in the middle of the street, hands on hips, exclaiming in wonder.
“He was beside himself,” Simmons said. Children often dance in the street to music he also plays on loudspeakers, he said.
“I don’t do this for me. This is for everybody else,” Simmons said. The display takes him three weeks to set up, and he makes almost all the decorations and fixtures by hand.
Simmons said he, too, is motivated by an urge to light cold winter nights and share a sense of joy. “Things aren’t always happy out there. I want to make somebody’s day a lot better and a lot brighter.”