This week I dug out the light box I bought when we lived in Seattle, where darkness falls before 4 pm each day and persists till nearly 9 in the morning. The box generates an intense light that helps overcome the malaise some people experience in the season of darkness. For some reason, even though I live hundreds of miles south these days, this year I feel the need. I think it’s a case of the holiday blues.
Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah (also called, like the Hindu celebration of Diwali, the “festival of lights”). Each holiday has its specific meaning, of course, but beyond its tale of militias and miracles, Hanukkah, with its practice of lighting an increasing number of candles each night, symbolizes the return of light after a time of darkness.
Each religion’s calendars and stories are different, but most places in the U.S., mid-December nightfall reveals a third festival of lights: Christmas, of course. Christmastime is often challenging for me. Like quite a few Jews who grew up in predominantly Christian settings, I associate it with a type of cultural exclusion: the ubiquitous piped-in music, the decorations, foods and greetings taking up so much space in the public square that there is very little left for those of us who don’t partake. The image I associate with Christmas is walking at night past houses festooned with lights, gazing into picture-windows at crisp green trees surrounded with a golden glow, and feeling there is a type of belonging I will never experience.
Only now that I’m solidly middle-aged instead of ten years old, I’m aware that many of my non-Jewish friends feel something akin to my own dissatisfaction and exclusion, generated by the great gap between the aggressively marketed Christmas cheer stamped our by the commercial cultural industries and people’s own actually existing family experiences.
Here comes something to put my kvetches into perspective.
I’ve been writing for the last few months about Prison Nation, what this country has become in the process of creating and filling the largest prison-industrial complex on the planet. (Check out my blog essays on October 24th, October 31st and November 22 if you want to read previous installments.)
Now, as the winter holidays approach, Holler to the Hood (H2H), based at WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a project of the community arts and media center Appalshop, has released its annual “Calls from Home” one-hour radio special, featuring messages from friends, supporters and family members to their loved ones in prison. This gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the holiday blues.
In the space of an hour, the messages touch on almost every imaginable human feeling, from deep, uncontainable loss to unbounded exuberance. Children sing to their fathers, mothers express hope they will this year be able to visit their sons transferred to prisons much too far from home. Some of the messages are pleas, mothers begging to hear from their children. Others’ voices are strained by the effort of trying to pack into a few words the feeling of solidarity and support they wish to convey. Some make reference to the transgressions that put their loved ones where they are, some to those unjustly incarcerated. Some sound exhausted, stealing precious moments before they must leave for work, or keeping the kids up specially late to say hello. There are poems, sermons, political speeches, and even a paean to night fishing. You can download the program here, and spend an hour putting a human face on our ever-expanding prison nation in the hope of awakening conscience.
Tonight, when I light the candles and say the blessings, I will dedicate them to the families who suffer the consequences of criminal violence, be they related to victims, perpetrators, captors or captives. In our increasingly punitive culture, as the commercialization of prisons expands, when one individual is punished, his whole family suffers, and often that suffering leaks into the larger community, spreading pain in its wake. I will dedicate the candles to the return of light to our eyes, our hearts, the world.