Light on timing of Christmas

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, December 24, 2019

Placing the birth of Christ at the time of the winter solstice was a stroke of genius. óLucian 'Lamplighter Luc' Kemble, OFM

This is the season when our fancies turn to lighting lamps, candles, brightly coloured bulbs, and wonderment on children’s faces. Memories of one lamplighter, in particular, often come to mind since a coffee chat I had some years ago with Barry Thorson.

Barry is the accomplished writer, director, and storyteller who founded Cochrane’s Lone Wolf Theatre Company. In 2004 he made a video, A Question of Why, about why I write these columns. In the video I noted the impact of a Franciscan priest and astronomer to whom Barry also owes much of his sense of wonderment: the late Lucian Kemble, OFM, whose nickname was “Lamplighter Luc.”

Lamplighter Luc (d. 1999) was well known locally as a counsellor and retreat team member at the Mount St. Francis Retreat. Internationally, he had a reputation as a passionate scholar of the night sky.

Everything fascinated Lamplighter Luc: the refraction of sunlight through a glass of wine or a drop of melting snow, the melancholy twitter of a bluebird – and one admirer’s dejected self-image of being no more significant than a speck of dust in the vastness of the universe.

“Dust?” the friar said to his young friend. “You and I may be made from dust, true – but it’s star dust!”

Lamplighter Luc’s fascination with all things was infectious, and Barry was grateful for his exposure to the infection. As a teenager growing up in Cochrane, he was able to spend many nights at the telescope with the gentle friar.

“We would look out at the stars – looking upon a world I could not even begin to understand – listen to Mozart on a tiny cassette player, and drink hot apple cider,” Barry said. “I was spellbound by the combination of such genius, love and knowledge.”

Of Lamplighter Luc’s deep, personal identification with the objects of his fascination, Barry said:

“He became our telescope, and through him we were all able to see some far-off light. He became our favourite books, and one could spend hours with him and be ushered into strange and magical worlds. He became our sermons, and one could hear in him the call to adventure. He became the simpleness of a flower, and all one needed to do was observe and learn.”

Nor did the timing of Christmas escape his attention. Barry passed me a letter the friar once sent him on the merging of Christmas with winter solstice celebrations.

In the letter, Lamplighter Luc wrote of the tug-of-war between light and darkness in the ancient world. Long winters and “the apparent death of nature” resulted in beliefs and myths of “dread, finality, despair on the one hand and hope, promise, expectation on the other,” he said.

“Some people tend to blame the Church for merely taking over old Roman seasonal god-myths of mid-winter. Blame or not, it was a ‘natural’ and the placing of the birth of Christ at the time of the winter solstice was a stroke of genius, in its dramatic parallels….

“In post-Roman, ‘barbarian’ times when Europe was in the grips of turmoil and dark for some five centuries, a lot of primitive myths (meaning early, not unintelligent, as we often use the word) were gradually incorporated into the Christian unfolding of seasons. Mostly quite smoothly and easily because both struck chords in the human psyche.

“Things like the Yule tree and log, for instance. Imagine living in a cold, dank, rat-infested gloomy ‘castle’ (or worse still, the feudal peasants’ huts), for weeks on end, watching the Sun daily rising later and sinking earlier. The great hall would find warmth and hospitality and cheer against the threatening terror of the night outside, with a roaring, huge, fire log. And in the dread forest of goblins and witches, and werewolves, and bandits, the evergreen was the only sign of possible life to come.

“And when Christ was preached as the Light come into the world, offering love and light and forgiveness, etc., winter and Christmas celebrations must have really meant a lot.”

Setting the letter down, Barry and I raised our mugs in a Yuletide toast to our friend: “To Lamplighter Luc, who saw every glorious detail of life as gift to be opened and treasured!”

Merry Christmas, dear readers!


© 2019 Warren Harbeck

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