On early Saturday evening my husband and I took our three children to walk among the Christmas lights at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Every year the Gardens drape their trees and plants and walkways with hundreds of thousands of white and multi-colored lights. The effective is mesmerizing, and often leaves people hushed as they wander among the ethereal garden paths. It would be interesting to attend a Zen session of walking meditation at the lighted Gardens; perhaps more than one participant would receive spontaneous enlightenment.
We have attended this event for many years, since Somber Child was an infant. This year, despite the excitement and illumination all around, he was no less somber.
But he was willing enough, and so we began. I noticed first the moon, which was either full or close to its fullest point last night, and was gorgeously shrouded in a winter haze.
Just past the entrance to the Gardens there is a large square that runs downhill on all sides; it is used as a musical venue during the summer months, and used more frequently by hyper children as a perfect spot for rolling and running downhill at speeds worrying to their parents. Unless, that is, the parents join in, as I did last night. At the bottom of the hill we danced waltzes in the moonlight and laughed until we were breathless.
The most beautiful display of light, in my opinion, is just next to this open square. Here, there are several trees cloaked with intense white-blue bulbs that turn everything within their reach to a mysterious indigo hue. White glows almost fluorescent under this light. My husband said it was like a rave and I felt like a long necked swan in Swan Lake and yearned to practice my arabesques; such are the interesting differences between my husband’s mind and mine.
As we walked we could feel the chill of the night air close in around us. Yet everywhere we looked there were warm colors illuminating every surface, and the colder we became the warmer the lights appeared.
Upon reaching the Japanese Garden, we discovered that by some well planned magic there were tiny green lights speckling every part of the path, and each person walking the path found himself covered in pin-points of brilliant green. The trees overhead were dripping falling stars of white light and, try as one might, it was impossible to find the origin of either creation.
The further we walked the more our outer reality was transformed: the lights, combined with the glowing flushed faces around us, created a tableau of joy and wonder. If one opened to it, this artificial tableau, like a still life of timeless high-winter ceremony, infused the inner self as well, filling the body with a contented and secure happiness.
Christmas lights always make me think of the myriad ways in which human beings manage and approach darkness. For centuries upon centuries, and in every culture of the world, humans have possessed a profound inner need to create, in a ceremonial and methodical manner, a response to what they cannot see, and to control environments, such as winter, inhospitable to their survival.
In this context, wandering through Christmas lights makes me connected, in a way that feels real and true to me, to the Chthonic cults of Dionysus in ancient Greece, in which people went deep into caves and made offerings, often of wine, to the darkness and the dead. Or even the humans from tens of thousands of years ago who lived near what we now call Lascaux, France: with their torches lit they made their way deep and then deeper into ink-black caves, and drew with mineral pigments images closest to their lives and to their survival: bulls, stags, horses. Picture these people, huddled against the cold, surrounded by the beautiful, necessary light of their torches, tracing and coloring these paintings, and leaving behind their hand prints. I imagine the comfort this gave them is similar if not identical to the warmth I felt last night from the presence of the lights, the people, the plants……
My sweet middle child is much like me in almost every way, including a tendency to be cold almost all the time. We started to head back as soon as her face fell and her voice pitched itself to the tired whine all parents know too well.
Bushels of light accompanied us as we hurried our way back.
As we came closer to the Garden’s entrance, the air warmed a bit, and the darkness faded. The children began to bicker and complain; back to the mundane tasks of bedtime rituals and grumpy-child arguments. The spell was broken but whatever salve it offered our winter bound souls was already absorbed.
Soon, the recollection of the vibrant evening will fade, and the lights will become a blurred memory, streaking the mind with vague images of darkness illuminated, a moment of bliss in the ever changing wheel of seasons, holidays, passing days. But the human desire to answer darkness with ceremonial incandescence will seem forever to remain, as long as we inhabit this sacred soil.