Lighting up Coquitlam

It’s the darkest time of the year, and the Coquitlam Heritage Centre’s Mackin House is brightening things up. It’s just not in the way most Vancouverites would expect, says Jennie Johnston.

This time tends to be focused on the secular and Christianized versions,” says Johnston, the Centre’s program manager and the organizer of Celebration of Light, which has two workshops taking place Nov. 30.

Johnston’s more diverse approach will look at other religions and other customs that go along with celebrating the beginning of winter, the dark and the light returning.

Heating up beeswax

Participants at the Celebration of Light workshops in Coquitlam will make candles out of sheets of beeswax. | Photos courtesy of Mackin House

Most customs, religious or otherwise, have to do with nature, Johnston points out. Fire, a fact often lost in our modern electric time, has been traditionally used at this time to banish the darkness.

“I think the natural elements of this [season] are not thought about,” says Johnston. “We need candles to get us thought this time, to light the darkness.”

At the workshops, participants will make their own candles using a process combining tradition with modern elements.

“We have sheets of beeswax that we pre-cut into a long rectangle. You take a wick and lay it out,” she explains. “Then you heat up the wax with a hair dryer and roll it into a log. The heat activates the wax so it’s a little bit melty, easy for people to roll. Then you have a candle!”

Such candles have played their parts in many a seasonal story, says Johnston, in both good and bad ways.

A story from Coquitlam’s historical Maillardville reveals some of the negative aspects of fire.

“It was a predominantly Catholic community,” relates Johnston. “After midnight mass, they left the candles burning. The church burned down, and it took them years and years to raise the money to rebuild it.”

But candles can play more positive roles in seasonal customs. At the workshop, Johnston and her colleagues will tell stories of Kwanzaa, a holiday begun in the last century as a time to honour the world’s African diaspora. At Kwanzaa, people light candles to symbolize their commitment to seven principles (originally the principles espoused by black nationalists).

“The kinara holds the candles,” says Johnston. “There are seven different candles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. [People] create an altar on which there are different things representing the principles: an ear of corn, a unity cup, [and] offerings of fruit, nut, and vegetables.”

Catching the sun

Participants at the Celebration of Light workshops in Coquitlam will make candles out of sheets of beeswax. | Photos courtesy of Mackin House

Many seasonal stories emphasize the fact this time of year can be a quiet, reflective time.

“It’s a good time to think about your year, to assess things you might want to let go of,” she notes.

But joy, as symbolized by light, is also a part of the workshops.

To emphasize this, Johnston will also tell seasonal miracle stories, including the Jewish tale of an oil lamp that burned for eight days. In this story, Jews rebelling against a tyrant king found the lamp, along with one lone jug of oil, in a temple ransacked by the king’s soldiers.

The flip side of this season, with its promise of sun and spring, will be touched upon as well.

Participants will also make suncatchers in the shape of stars of David, which are traditionally made by celebrants of Hanukkah.

“[They] catch the light when you hang [them] in the window,” says Johnston. “You glue popsicle sticks together and then use the tissue paper to make it have a see-through colour. Then you can hang it in the window or on the Christmas tree.”

This activity, as well as the workshops themselves, promises to be entertaining for all.

“It’s fun for kids, and adults enjoy it, too!” she says.

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