When it is dark, when it is cold, that is the time of year when we spark a fire we hope will burn through the next year, and even though it never does, hope smolders still.
In the history of the human species, I imagine that surely dozens or even hundreds of words have already been written about the special magic of fire. So I will add a few of my own.
I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana a few houses down from a family that went all in for outdoor Christmas light displays – the kind that every year other people drove into our neighborhood to see. Whatever you might think of such displays, it’s uncontroversial that they bear witness to the intervention of a human hand: Some person went to the trouble to string those wires and screw in all those little tiny bulbs.
In Manchester, Michigan – a village in the corner of Washtenaw County, about 25 miles southwest of Ann Arbor – electric Christmas light displays coexist peacefully with candles. This year marks the 34th year of the Manchester Luminaria – a community tradition that involves placing candles inside paper bags weighted with sand, spaced evenly along the street. Residents who participate in the tradition purchase enough bags to line the street frontage of their property. The candles are lit at dusk on Christmas Eve.
I learned about this tradition because last week The Manchester Mirror reported that sales of the sand-filled bags with candles would begin from the vacant building on the northwestern corner of Manchester’s Main Street and M-52.
So how is a paper bag, lit from within by a candle, different from an electric light display? It isn’t the mere imprint of a human hand, because that much they have in common. But a glowing paper bag filled with fire bears witness to a certain immediacy of that human intervention: Some person only very recently set that candle aflame.
And if you let your eye wander down that line of evenly-spaced luminary bags, counting them off as you go, your gaze might land on one where there’s a human figure still crouched over it applying a miniature torch to the candle. And when you see a series of a dozen unlit luminary bags, a dark segment wedged into the light, you can stand and wait, and know that a person will emerge to light those candles.
In the Manchester Luminaria, you can see the imprint of a human hand in a way that is far more visceral than in an electric light display.
I wish I had a more visceral way to convey traditional seasons greetings to Chronicle readers. But all I have is the electric light display that we call the Internet. In that spirit, I’d like to wish Chronicle readers a merry Christmas, happy holidays and a happy new year.
After the break are some additional photos from a Christmas Eve excursion to Manchester.