Many Christmas carols exalt nighttime: Oh Holy Night, Silent Night, O, Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night…. Christmas carols are probably the reason I love nighttime and darkness. When the nights start to lengthen in October, I get excited and calm at the same time.
I became an Advent person long before I ever heard the word. Darkness with a glimmer of light has always been my favorite winter combo. As a kid, I loved to sit in darkness by a nightlight, or in the dark dining room with the lighted candles on the table, or in a dark closet with a comforting sliver of light under the door. When the Christmas tree went up with its strings of lights, I spent hours lying under it in the otherwise dark living room. When the tree came down in January, I sprawled lengthwise in front of the fireplace. Darkness with a splash of light. It is the Advent message. The darkness seems overwhelming but a teaser of light and the bright memory of God’s promises of salvation and liberation reframe the story of night.
December 21st is the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year–or in my night-loving perspective, the longest night of the year. Hurray for all of those hours of darkness! I wish I had shared my love of the night with my children in concrete ways when they were young. When our older son was four, he was afraid of the dark. Bedtimes were tough. One night he shouted “I can’t sleep; I’m afraid of the dark.” I didn’t walk through the room checking under the bed or in the closets. (We had done that many times before.) I said, “Just tell God about your fears. God will help.” His quick response, with the air of a fourteen-year old, not a four-year old, was: “And what’s God gonna do? Just take those little thoughts right out of my head?” Shocked, I really didn’t know how to answer. This was skepticism way beyond my spiritual pay grade. I have spent years wondering how I could have responded to the little agnostic with spiritual wisdom and a pithy Scripture verse. I’m still not sure; but here are a few Advent/winter solstice suggestions (too late for my children) for befriending the night before the fears take over.
- In the Northern Hemisphere December 21 is a great night to take a walk outside with children, especially since the moon is just past full. Bundle up if it’s cold and entice them out of the house with flashlights and a night-focused Christmas carol.
Photo by the Rev. Canon Don Binder, Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem
- Sit together in the darkness inside the house. Light the four candles on the Advent wreath and challenge children to be completely silent for a minute (or two or three.) Use an old-fashioned egg timer and watch the grains fall in the candlelight. After the silence, serve hot chocolate, sing a carol, or tell the Christmas story.
- Teach a line of Scripture for a child to carry with them. Pieces of each passage are enough for small children.
Even the darkness will not be dark to you; [the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.] Psalm 139 NIV
You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; [my God turns my darkness into light.] Psalm 18:28 NIV
- Invite children to create a breath prayer specifically for the Winter Solstice and the last days of Advent. A breath prayer is a short, two-part prayer. One part is a name for God; the second part is a petition or request. Here are some examples: “Loving Jesus, come quickly.” “God of light, take away my fear.” “Holy One, shine in my heart.” Keep the prayer at the tip of your tongue and the pocket of your heart, so you can say it all through the day and night. This ancient prayer form is a way to “pray without ceasing.”
- Create a special, quiet corner for a child to experience time alone in the dark. Place some battery-operated candles on a small table with an old-fashioned 3-7 minute egg timer. Invite your child to be quiet for those minutes as they watch the grains of sand fall and mark off the moments of time. Another way to create the same experience is to give them with private time by the lighted Christmas tree.
- Teach the refrain to the Bernadette Farrell song Christ, Be Our Light. It’s easy to learn especially if you add some simple gestures Here is the YouTube with song and lyrics. The Taize chant Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away is a haunting single-line song that is comforting to sing for adults and children.
- Snuggle together in the dark!
So beautiful, my friend! May I suggest two night time picture books with lovely text and an affirming message? Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon, about a child’s night walk with Dad as he calls up an owl, is truly a gentle classic that frames night time as full of wonder. Night Tree, by Eve Bunting, is a Christmas season story of a family’s night errand of decorating a tree in the forest as a feeding place for the animals. I have enjoyed these with my preschool classes but even older children find them satisfying.
Oh, thank you. Great suggestions!