Winter Lights

by Elio Basagni

Many human civilisations have regarded the time between Autumn and Winter as a time of cleansing and purification. It seems that during this time of the year rituals have been devised and offerings made to honour what is gone and to welcome what is coming. Interestingly, all the festivities related to this dark time of the year are almost always entangled with some sort of symbol of light. 

In ancient Rome Bruma was celebrated on 24th November. This turned into an important end of the year festivities (the Brumalia) when Constantinople became the capital of the empire. These celebrations expressed the idea that during the darkest time of the year, the seeds left from the crops harvested at the beginning of Autumn could be sown for future sprouting. Sacrifices were offered to placate the Roman Gods and prophetic indications were taken as prospects for the next year. 

On 31st October most western countries celebrate Halloween which marks the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day (Allhallowtide), the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the departed. As many Christian feasts the celebration may have more ancient roots and been influenced by the Gaelic festival of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest season (Autumn) and beginning the darker half of the year (Winter).  

Samhain was held on 1 November, with the celebrations beginning on the evening of 31 October, halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. Some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain and the first recorded historical reports of the festival mention great gatherings and feasts during which burial mounds were opened and bonfires lit. 

Vaguely similar to the observance of Allhallowtide in Christianity, Jewish people observe Yizkor (in Hebrew “remember”) a special memorial prayer for the departed recited in synagogues four times a year. One of these times is Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), the holiest day of the year, when forgiveness is achieved through purification. 

Even though Mohammed’s precise date of birth is disputed among the diverse incarnation of Islamism, it is traditionally celebrated in most Islamic countries between the 12th and 17th day of the third month of the lunar Islamic calendar. Mawlid takes place between Autumn and Winter of the Gregorian calendar and in Turkey is known as Mevlid Kandili which means “the candle feast for the Prophet’s birthday”. 

The most important Hindu festival, Diwali, the Festival of Lights, takes place during the lunar month of Kartika, between mid-October and mid-November, and generally lasts five days. Diwali sanctions the spiritual triumph of light over darkness, truth over sin because Hindu believes, there is something pure, unchanging, and eternal beyond our-selves. Therefore, homes and workplaces are cleaned, renovated, and decorated with oil lamps (diyas) and art circle patterns. Diwali is also celebrated by some Buddhist communities in Nepal; it marks the end of the year for the Jains and falls when the Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas. 

On the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar, roughly the Gregorian month of November,Halloween the Kingdom of Thailand and nearby countries influenced by the Buddhist Southwestern Thai culture celebrate Loy Krathong. Loy can be translated as ‘to float’ whereas a krathong is a small lotus-shaped boat traditionally made from banana leaves and decorated with flowers, three sticks of incense and a lit candle. On the evening of the festival, Thai people gather around rivers, lakes, and canals to release these floating lanterns in order to dispel the negativity gathered during the previous year and to welcome the promises of the coming year. This festival is also known as the Lantern Festival and shares the same name as its Chinese equivalent held on the full moon of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This is generally early October of the Gregorian calendar when the Moon, represented by Chang’e in Chinese Mythology, is at its brightest and fullest size during the harvest. 

This idea of the light being swallowed by the darkness as part of a cyclical process of constant renewal seems to be a common theme of all human cultures; however, it was most elegantly described by ancient East Asian philosophers.  

One of the essential aspects of all traditional East Asian worldviews is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things. Any observable phenomenon in the universe has a rhythmical/cyclical nature, the manifestation of a fundamental oneness. In ancient China this oneness was represented using the character Dao (the way). A reminder of the fact that the only unchangeable aspect of the universe is change itself which manifests through the dialogic alternation of two principles one expanding, one contracting, respectively known as Yang and Yin. 

In the Yi Jing, the Classic of Changes, Yang is represented using an unbroken line whilst Yin is rendered with a broken line. The Yi Jing is one of the oldest Chinese texts, originally conceived as a divination tool, during the Warring States it was transformed into a cosmological text accompanied by philosophical commentaries known as the “Ten Wings”, where we can read: 

The Changes (yi) possess the Great Ultimate (taiji). This gives birth to Two Forms (Liang Yi). Two Forms give birth to Four Images (Si Xian). Four Images give birth to the Eight Trigram (Ba Gua). 

winter lightsTherefore, the bagua are a set of eight trigrams used in Daoist cosmology to represent the most basic permutations of Yin and Yang. The diagram above shows them linearly from the most Yang to the most Yin (from 1 to 8). However, traditionally they are portrayed as elements of two cycles known as the Fu Xi and King Wen arrangements, respectively the outer and inner circle in the picture below. It seems that the ancient East Asian philosophers understood that energy flow is not enough, and its capture and storage are equally important. Only cycles can ensure that. 

baguaAs beautifully put by Mae-Wan Ho, a contemporary scientist: 

The real miracle that enables life to emerge then is to close the energy circle, to make a life cycle that stores and feeds on the energy flowing through. Something magical happens with a circle. A circle entails perpetual return, and that means dynamic stability. The life cycle is in turn made up of numerous sub-cycles of activities, or biological rhythms, ranging in periods of split seconds and minutes, to circadian, annual and supra-annual. 

Fu Xi and King Wen arrangements are at the core of the traditional Chinese description of space and time as exemplified in the diagram below where they describe, among other things, seasons and directions. 


Please note that the Chinese compass displays the South at the top and the North at the bottom; hence, East is on the left and West on the right.

Let’s focus on the position of the trigram Qian (number 1) in both sequences. This trigram is made of three unbroken lines. It is the quintessential representation of the expanding yang principle, the symbol of a creative, unique principle: the immaterial, formless, spiritual power of light. In the Fu Xi arrangement, Qian, according to its proper nature, takes the position at the top of the compass and it is associated with the South direction.  

The Fu Xi arrangement is a harmonious displacement of deep symmetry and balance (each trigram faces its opposite. In the King Wen arrangements, on the contrary, that balance is broken and a pulsating rhythm results from the interaction of yin and yang. In the King Wen arrangement Qian is associated with the Northwest direction and the consolidation of the darkest time of the year: the end of the Autumn season. Here the creative power of the yang is necessary to purify and reignite a new cycle. It is a time that requires the acceptance of death as a cleansing process which allows the impregnation of something new. After all, the West brings the light of day into the night and Autumn is the end of the harvest season when seeds are sown to be ready to germinate the following spring. 

This is the time when energy needs to be stored and feeds on the decay of the current cycle flowing towards the next. Qian here is the hidden creative power, the light that sinks into the darkness that all cultures celebrate in Autumn when we must come to terms with the idea of death as an essential process of renewal. As my Tai Chi Daoist teacher, Master John W. Shadow used to say: “creation happens in the darkness”. 

Elio Basagni is the Principal of the International College of Oriental Medicine (ICOM)
Main image: Floating lanterns (krathongs) at Chaweng Lake, Loy Krathong 2010, Koh Samui by Per Meistrup