December in Berlin is grey and cold, and daylight is fleeting. It’s further north than here. By the time I'd showered and let my hair dry each morning, it seemed the sun was already beginning to set. Nighttime lingered disproportionate to the day, but wore a cloak of luminance – a rain-glazed plaza reflected lights suspended in neat rows; a wide boulevard stood parted by bright sculptures and shimmering trees. Night in Berlin was unlike the overcoat that wrapped the night in my neighborhood in Brooklyn – plastic nativity scenes erect before brownstones; blue, green and red, hanging and blinking in a window; streetlights casting a glow on pieces of trash escaped from uncovered bins.
My parents never put Christmas lights on the outside of our house in Portland. We had one decoration: a large plastic Santa Claus that was stored in the attic most of the year, transported first into the house and then to the upstairs deck each December by my dad. That Santa Claus had a light inside, and an extension cord that reached an outlet where he was connected. There was also sand inside him, so he wouldn’t be carried off our deck and into the darkness by a strong wind. He faced outward so cars driving up the street past our house might glimpse his friendly jolly countenance from below. When we sat there in the evenings, we could see him turned on through the dusty curtains covering the sliding glass door in the living room. We could feel his warmth, even while he turned away from us. As I grew older and my belief in Santa Claus died, I came to appreciate the Pagan Solstice on December 21st more than December 25th. The Solstice: the gradual return of the light, the lifting of obscurity.
I’ve never done the math or applied for a grant, but I figure I spend several hundred dollars every year keeping my small apartment ablaze with candles – soy, paraffin. . . some tall with sublime scents and others small, quiet and plain. As a DIY teenager in Portland, I collected cans from frozen juice concentrate and transformed my mom’s kitchen into a colorful mess sponsored by Michael's Arts and Crafts when my supply was depleted. Yesterday I emptied my freezer of store-bought candle holders, liberated them from their wax and metal remains, washed and promoted them to the cupboard, where they would be reused as vessels for other essential life-giving elements.
Night contains the darkness and day contains the light – and each of us contains a little bit of both. We try to hold them in their proper balance. Sometimes, especially at certain times of the year, one overtakes the other – as in the northern parts of the world, depending on the season.
Having a little sand inside isn't a bad idea, either, lest we be carried off by a strong wind.