Why we find Christmas lights so magical

A hymn from 1811 gives clues as to why Christmas lights and candles are so enchanting.

There is something magical about Christmas lights. As a child, my parents would take me and my brothers on an annual car trip to see the houses near us with the best lights. We made passionate cases for the house we thought best. Every December I counted the number of houses with lights in our neighborhood, knowing that the more houses lit, the closer we got to Christmas.

In St. Louis City, where we live today, there’s a neighborhood block near us that’s going wild with house decorations called Candy Cane Lane. It’s so packed with tourists that you can’t park within several blocks in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Getting all the lights to shine must take months of planning and effort. However, the effort is well worth it for all the Christmas cheer it creates. People come from all over to see it.

light and darkness

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes shortly after the darkest day of the year. In December it gets darker and the days shorter until finally it gets lighter at Christmas. In the Catholic calendar, the birth of the Redeemer is associated with the reappearance of the sun.

These themes of light and darkness are so pervasive that we associate the holiday with candles and lights – think of the Advent wreath, luminaries, candlelit Christmas masses and lights outside houses and inside on garlands and Christmas trees.

The Epiphany, which falls 12 days after Christmas and commemorates the arrival of the three kings at Christ’s side, is also associated with light. One of the most famous symbols of Epiphany is the star in the sky that led the Magi to the Holy Family. The star was the brightest in the night sky.

“Brightest and Best”

One of the most beautiful Epiphany hymns alluding to this star is called “Brightest and Best”. We sing it every year in our church (fortunately named in honor of the Epiphany) and I hope you do too.

Written by Reginald Heber in 1811, the hymn was initially not very popular. Heber wrote “Brightest and Best” as part of a larger project to improve congregational singing. His own congregation happily sang the new hymns, but the publishers refused to print his new hymnal. The songs did not find a wider market until Heber’s wife published the hymnal herself. “Brightest and Best” is one of the classics to emerge from the collection along with “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

The first verse is all about light and darkness:

brightest and best of the stars of the morning,

dawn our darkness and help us;

star of the east adorning the horizon,

guide to where our Redeemer child will be laid.

This tells us why Christmas lights and candles are so adorable. Light points directly to a ingrained hope, the kind of hope that keeps us going through even the darkest moments of our lives. The sun is just above the horizon. The poinsettia is ascending.

As a child, when I looked at all those houses decorated with Christmas lights, lawn reindeer and nativity scenes, I pressed my face to the car window and imagined that the people in those houses were very happy. Perhaps the parents sat by the fire with hot chocolate and watched the children try to guess what was in the presents under the tree. Maybe they watched a Christmas movie together or read to visit relatives. Those Christmas lights cried out for joy, and in their glow the things of darkness were banished and angels fluttered joyfully in the frosty air.

Snowflake, Lantern, Light