Holiday Lights: The Season of Stars and Candles

Manhattanites are ecumenical, and that’s why there are menorahs alongside Christmas trees from City Hall to the upper Upper West Side

| 02 Dec 2021 | 03:37

Manhattan is many things. One thing it isn’t is Flynn Land. Two weeks ago, Michael Flynn, the general who served for a time as national security adviser, told a Texas audience that, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion.”

Despite criticism from fellow officers, national security officials, and various electeds who suggested Flynn might want to check his copy of The Constitution, the general did not back down.

Maybe he needs not just to review Article One but also to consider how we light up our world in December.

Start in 164 BCE when a Jewish revolt against the Greeks succeeded in recapturing and rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem. The campaign, illuminated by a magical oil which had seemed only enough to keep the candelabra on the altar burning for one night, miraculously burned for eight days. The event, now known as Hanukkah, means “dedicated” whether you spell it Hannuka or Chanukah. Its lasting symbol is the menorah, a candelabra with nine slots, one to light each of the others on the succeeding days of the holiday now called, for obvious reasons, the Festival of Lights.

Next up in the month’s lightings, the Christmas tree. The lights, of course, represent the star which roughly two centuries later led the Magi to Jerusalem. There are many ways to explain this astronomical phenomenon on the night of Winter solstice, one of which is a conjunction of planets such as occurred for the first time in 800 years last December 21, when Jupiter and Saturn aligned so that they appeared to form a double planet. Some astronomers believe that a conjunction two millennia ago involved not these two planets but Jupiter and Venus, so close that they basically stacked like a figure 8 producing the brightest star that anyone alive had ever seen. Which is intriguing but does not obviate the magic of belief.

Either way, from then on, light was associated with the event, mostly candles until Christmas 1880, when Thomas Edison hung 260 electric lights outside his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, a moment The New York Times reported “cast a soft and mellow light on all sides.” Two years later, Edison hung the lights on a tree and a tradition was born, leading to public tree-lighting, such as Calvin Coolidge’s lighting the first National Christmas Tree in Washington in 1923.

Today, unlike Trump’s General, Manhattanites are ecumenical which is why there are menorahs alongside Christmas trees from City Hall to Midtown and on up to the upper Upper West Side. “Outside of churches, I do not believe that there are any public spaces in New York, which has merely a Christmas Tree. Same is I am sure true for Menorahs,” says Sutton Area Community (SAC) president Charles Coutinho. And Liz Ritter, longtime Washington Heights/Inwood resident & activist, notes that when the Riverside-Inwood Neighborhood Garden, next to the new Quisqueya Plaza, “in a community as Dominican as it gets, does their tree lighting with Santa, there will be a menorah.”

Finally, all of us bask in the possibility of the most inclusive light of all, the one that shines not in the Manhattan imagination, but also in our national mind and heart lit by the torch in the hand of The Lady With the Lamp.