It’s the holiday season and a time for celebration, reflection, and catching up with family and friends. This year, I am struck by two themes: the celebration of light and darkness, and the time-honored traditions found in special foods and decorations.
For me, a winter aficionado with strong Irish roots, my holidays began with Samhain (pronounced “SAH-win”). Samhain is a Celtic festival that marks the “wintering of the world” – that necessary time of slowing down, becoming quiet, and resting. As I write this blog, millions of people across the globe are celebrating the festival of Diwali. Diwali is a five-day celebration marking the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. Families gather over Diwali in households decorated with vibrant flowers and candles, enjoying sweets in acknowledgement of the year’s bountiful harvest.
This year, Hanukkah began at sundown on November 28 and ended December 6. This eight-day Jewish holiday commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem as a festival of lights remembering the miracle of the oil lamp that burned for eight days. For those who celebrate Christmas, this is both a secular as well as a religious festival including special prayers and church services, household decorations, sparkling trees, and sweet treats. In many places you might find luminarias, small paper sacks filled with sand that support candles creating beautiful lights along streets and up pathways in many neighborhoods inspired by traditions arising from Central and South America. Kwanzaa celebrates African heritage and identity, beginning the day after Christmas lasting for several days. During Kwanzaa people light candles, eat special foods recognizing the “first fruits” of the harvest, and place special symbols around their homes.
Light plays a leading role in many winter celebrations. During this time of year, at least in the northern hemisphere, light is a cherished resource dispelling the darker days and cold weather inspiring vision and hope. Light serves as a symbol of many things to many people, but to me, light symbolizes goodness and knowledge and has special meaning to the National Library of Medicine. NLM brings knowledge to the world 24/7, and I personally take this time to remember the “light” that NLM brings to the world.
NLM has a bit less to do with food and decorations, but we are filled with books, articles, and artifacts about nutrition and symbolism. We can extend the celebration of food and decorations to NLM. In 2016, NLM’s History of Medicine division launched a special exhibition, “Fire and Freedom: Food & Enslavement in Early America.” This exhibit illustrated the important connection between meals and power dynamics – you can visit the online exhibition here. NLM’s digital collection includes pictures of holiday events across time and around the world – you can look here for a poster urging Americans to Buy Christmas Seals, Fight Tuberculosis and here for a September 1917 list of suggestions from the American Red Cross for Christmas packets for our military personnel at home and abroad.
As you experience the lights and marvel at the foods and decorations of this holiday season, in whatever way you celebrate, please take with you the good wishes of the National Library of Medicine!