People all over the world have long celebrated a holiday to mark the solstice, the shortest day of the year, when the sun seems to have gone away forever and must be coaxed back. Ancient Northern European pagans had Yule; modern pagans celebrate Winter Solstice. The truth is, after the winter solstice, we enter the darkest and longest nights of the year. It is a season where light is most valued, most cherished, most symbolic. And so it is natural in this season to make light, whether the colorful thick candles of Kwanzaa, the twirly candles of Hanukkah, or the bright lights of the Christmas tree.

Chanukah is designed calendrically to plumb the darkness and open toward the light. That's because it's an eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th day of a lunar month. So every Chanukah contains a new moon night, a night when the moon can't be seen. And in years like this one, when Chanukah comes after the winter solstice, that means that the "New Moon" night of Chanukah--this year the night of December 26th--is arguably "the darkest night of the year," since it is the longest night of the year that's not illuminated by the moon. The candlelighting comes in counterpoint to this celestial action.

The rabbinic sages once debated, as rabbinic sages will, about which way to light the Hanukkah candles. Should we start with eight candles and work our way down to one? Or should we start with one and work our way up to eight? The sterner school of Shammai argued that since the festival commemorated a miraculous jar of one day's worth of oil that somehow burned for eight days, therefore Hanukkah should begin with eight candles, and each day, as the oil burned down, one candle would be removed. That way, as the holiday was celebrated, we would experience by analogy the gradual diminishment of the miraculous jar of oil as it burned out. This was extremely logical and appealed to the head. But the merciful school of Hillel said that, no, during these long nights of winter, we cannot stand this. We must grow the light each night, brighter and brighter, from one candle to eight, logic or historical analogy aside.

Both schools were right, say other rabbis, only Shammai's way is the way of the world to come. In that world of perfection, the miraculous order will be revealed to us constantly, so we won't need to add candles to remind us of its presence when the sky is dark. But here in this world, we need all the physical light we can get to remind us of the spiritual light that secretly surrounds us, so Hillel's rule holds sway.

To Jewish mystics, Hanukkah is the season of the miraculous order. It is a season of miracles when in darkness a light was shown. Christians feel exactly the same way. And Ramadan is also the month of the revelation of the Qur'an. So, let us be mindful together, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, of the small miracles of sunset and crescent moons, of short days and long nights--and of the need to add some light of our own during these blessed days. And let us share that light with each other, friends and neighbors, from one tradition to another: Happy Hanukkah! Merry Christmas! Happy and Blessed Ramadan! Merry Solstice! Joyous Kwanzaa!