There’s nothing like the holiday season to bring out everyone’s least feminist self. In one of the courses that I teach—Gender, Food, and the Body in Popular Culture—students are assigned to examine gender roles throughout the holiday season through the lens intersectional ecofeminism. Inevitably, almost every student returns from holiday break with the same assessment: mom, grandma, and a kitchen full of women prepare, cook, and clean every family meal; women do the holiday shopping; men in the family watch sports.
Of course, this isn’t true of everyone. There are plenty of families which subvert and dismantle stereotypical gender roles, but the holidays seem to heighten these roles, undergirding them with some kind of nostalgic and theological weight that claims that if mama doesn’t arduously prepare her famed casserole, the season will be ruined. Otherwise committed feminists find themselves singing carols filled with sexist language and participating in holiday rituals that they would critique any other time of the year. Subversion be damned because we want our traditional family holiday!
I’ve long struggled with creative ways to subversively approach the holidays as a queer clergywoman, parent, artist, and worship consultant. People like their nostalgic and heart-warming traditions, even when they sometimes smack of patriarchy, racism, and heteronormativity. I’ve confronted this as a preacher and worship planner, often to raised eyebrows or angry phone calls from congregants who just want to sing the carols without the preacher changing the words, or dismissing the notion of a virgin birth, or hanging enormous paintings of pregnant women all over the sanctuary.
But maintaining our intersectional feminism is important, even in the face of holiday nostalgia. Since I began the Holy Women Icons Project, I’ve wanted to paint a Holy Woman Icon who could somehow embody a feminist approach to the myriad winter holidays, yet kept elements of that warm nostalgia that is so important in the season. So, this year I painted Our Lady of Light in an attempt to honor a host of different spiritual traditions that focus on light this winter season.
In my own tradition, we are not yet celebrating Christmas (despite the capitalist consumer onslaught that has been on full throttle since October). Rather, we are about to dwell in the deep blue darkness of Advent, when we wait, long, and prepare for light to be birthed into our world. A candle is lit each Sunday during Advent and the light grows brighter in anticipation of the birth of Christ.
Advent is not the lone holiday that celebrates flickering light growing in the darkness this month. In addition to Advent, many of our Jewish friends will celebrate Hanukkah, a Festival of Lights. Each night a candle is lit as we remember, “such is the way of creation: first comes darkness, then light.” This season also hosts the Wiccan holiday of Yule, which marks the New Year and the celebration of the birth of the God as the Winter-born king, symbolized by the rebirth of the life-generating and life-sustaining sun. Yule is a time for ritually shedding the impurities of the past year and for meditating on ways in which you can develop your spirit in the year to come. In addition to Yule, December 21 is also Tohji-taisai, the Shinto Grand Ceremony of the Winter Solstice. Tohji-taisai celebrates the joy of the sun ending its yin period as it declines in strength, and the beginning of the yang period as its power grows stronger and stronger as the days lengthen. The sun is of central importance in Japan, expressing the presence of Amaterasu Omikami, or the Kami of the Sun.
As the days begin to grow longer again, Advent will end and the Christmas season will begin. Like the brightening of days, the liturgical colors shift from deep blue or purple to bright white or gold. Light is birthed. The sun grows stronger. Emmanuel is with us. As the twelve days of Christmas begin, so too, does Kwanza, a West African holy season where the candles of a seven-branched candelabrum are lit to represent seven holy attributes: unity, self-determination, responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Each of these meaningful wisdom traditions holds unique value that should not be overlooked. The last thing I want to do is neglect their uniqueness by combining them all into one woman. Whether the lights are coming from the Advent candles, the Menorah, the yang period of the sun, the fire dancers celebrating the Winter-born king, the seven-branched candelabrum, or the Christmas tree, they are providing illumination in the midst of shadows, pointing us toward peace.
Such is the work of Our Lady of Light, honoring and respecting the rich diversity and beauty of the myriad holy seasons we celebrate this time of year. Surrounded by the holiday nostalgia we still hold so dear, yet with arms outstretched to embrace more and more, her heart cries out to us:
Birthing light into
The bleak and wintry places,
Her heart cried
As you consider the message you’d like to send in your holiday cards this season, remember Our Lady of Light. Embody her message by proclaiming peace in the midst of war, hope in the face of despair, love to those who seem unlovable, and joy when your heart is hurting.
Prepare for the upcoming winter holidays by purchasing cards featuring Our Lady of Light, or Mary, Guadalupe, La Negrita, Regla, or Caridad if you wish to celebrate Mary’s subversive role in Christmas. Use promo code JSXMDG to receive 10% all purchases of Holy Women Icons cards or prints as you seek to inspire and empower the women who surround you this holiday season.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B,Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Violence of Everyday Church, and Holy Women Icons Contemplative Coloring Book. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com