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Lighting up the holidays


Last updated 11/24/2006 at Noon

“Silent night, holy night, wondrous star lend thy light…”

Joseph Mohr (1818)

Light is an integral part of holiday celebrations, whether it is a lighted Christmas tree, a Jewish Menorah or electric icicles rimming a home. Some use light because it is a symbol of God, and of Jesus. Some use it because it symbolizes driving away the darkness on dreary winter days. Others use light because it is simply a tradition. Whatever the reason for using light, it has a magical result, serving to lift spirits and encourage hearts. The following are just a few ways that we can make our holidays radiant, either literally or figuratively.

Christmas tree

It has been said that Martin Luther began the Christmas tree tradition. He was so enthralled with the beauty of the trees and stars that it was said that he cut down a tree and decorated it with candles to symbolize the stars.

We can also thank the Germans for continuing the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree. In the 19th century, a cut tree was placed in the home, lit with candles and decorated in secret. The children were not allowed to see the tree until Christmas Eve when they were ushered in to witness a beautifully transformed tree complete with presents encircling the base.


It has been suggested that the menorah, usually a seven-limbed candelabra, symbolized Moses’ encounter with the “burning bush,” a story told in Exodus. In the Jewish tradition this candelabra is lit during Hanukkah, which falls in late November, December or sometimes early January.

St. Lucia Day (Sankta Lucia Dagen)

In Sweden the Christmas season begins on December 13 when the youngest daughter from each family adorns herself in a white robe and a crown of evergreens. The crown was traditionally decorated with candles, but now most use battery-driven lights. The daughter carries a tray stocked with coffee and buns to her parents in bed. This tradition represents thanksgiving for the return of the sun in this northern country where, in many regions, the winter sky is either shrouded in darkness or twilight.

Ireland’s candle for Mary and Joseph

In Ireland, a lighted candle is placed in a window to welcome Mary and Joseph. Some families also set out plates of bread and drink to welcome the weary travelers.

Mexico’s las posadas

A “posada” (meaning lodging or shelter) commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of lodging. At dusk every evening from December 16 to the 24th, a party with food and drink is held in various homes. A procession is led by a child dressed as an angel. This child leads a group of children dressed in silver and gold robes carrying figures of Mary and Joseph. Adults then follow the children, singing and carrying candles. When the group returns to the house half of them remain outdoors to beg for shelter as Mary and Joseph did. The doors are then opened and a celebration, complete with a piñata, begins.

Electrical lighting

Rope lighting is used year-round in some establishments, but a rope of lights, which are found in clear or colored strands, gives a home an almost futuristic holiday feel.

Fiberoptic trees and displays can be expensive, but the results are pure magic. The tiny fibers of light blink in the darkness, creating a fairyland effect.

All-white lights strung on a Christmas tree with 100 lights per foot, creates an enchanted effect.

Seashell ornaments

To enhance the white effect use sand dollar ornaments. Another shell that makes a bright ornament is a white murex. This wispy shell has delicate white spines and gives the tree a dramatic effect, especially when several are used. Use a hot glue gun to affix the hangers to the backs of the shells. An iridescent ribbon bow glued to the top of the shells lends a sparkly effect.

Ice sculpture

Decorating with an ice sculpture is a unique way to usher in a bright holiday. The refection of light on the sheen of the ice creates a crystal-like effect. Online, I found several companies in San Diego County that specialize in creating ice sculptures.

Angel food cake with white orchids

Light up your holiday table with a simple but elegant dessert: an angel food cake frosted with Cool Whip and decorated with white orchids. Major Market offers large and medium-sized angel food cakes. Frost one of these cakes with Cool Whip and decorate with cut white orchids (found in Major Market’s floral shop) and you will have a delicious and attractive dessert that only takes about ten minutes to prepare. Enhance the effect with votive candles set in glasses either surrounding the cake in the center of a dining table or crowning the cake in a half-circle, which is a perfect configuration for a sideboard or buffet table.


The oldest winter holiday traditions include the use of candles. Votive candles in glass give an ice-like effect. A grouping of various heights of stout candles gives more light and lasts longer. Mirrors, which reflect the candlelight, make good candle bases. Candles are inexpensive and can also serve to scent the home, lending another dimension to the holiday atmosphere.


Traditionally, luminarias are made of paper bags with about an inch or so of sand in the bottom and one votive candle positioned in the sand. For obvious reasons, the luminarias are used outdoors, lighting pathways to houses or rimming a backyard. In our area the paper bags do not work as well because the heavy dew we experience in the evenings tends to wilt the paper bags. Luminaria bags fashioned of metal or pottery are more practical for our climate.


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