Friday, December 21, 2012

solar lights: what the season can afford

image from
We bought ours from
They didn't have good pictures!

In my quest for a green Christmas, we bought solar powered lights for the house last month.  I'd never heard of them until a blogger friend, thalassa, suggested it last year in response to my post on a smaller christmas.

I really did not know what to expect from them.  They earned rave reviews the caliber of "they last all night long!" on Amazon, but I took that with a grain of salt.  As it turns out, I should have taken it with the whole shaker because I'd say they only last for about an hour or two a night.  If you want to stop by for some Christmas cheer, you better do so around dusk.  It's pretty much lights out after that!

I could complain and say they weren't worth the $70 we paid for them, but you know I'm not going to do that. 

First, how cool that we have solar panels (no matter how small) in our yard!  I feel so liberated by that.  Turning on lights without plugging them in feels a little like biking downtown without the fetters of a car.  I love that feeling of being unattached.  Plus, I so appreciate having this technology around for the kids.  We've taken something abstract and futuristic and made it tangible--possible--real.

Except for this pesky problem that they don't work very well. 


Here's the thing, however:  no one seems to be very disappointed by that.  Sure, it'd be nice if the lights gave us just an hour or two more, but we don't seem to want that badly enough to switch back to electric.

I don't know about the rest of the family, but our solar lights have grown on me in part because they aren't faulty.  They would work perfectly well if the sun wasn't so shy at this time of year.  It cloaks itself with a thick winter blanket of clouds and fog, leaving us out in the cold and dark at a time when we need it's warming rays the most.  It has only shown itself for one day since we put the lights up, and even then it turned its face bashfully toward the horizon the entire time. 

Such cowering would never happen mid-summer when the sun's lofty perch emboldens it to stare directly at us with a sometimes punishing gaze.  I know we would have no problem capturing that look and shining it back "all night long" if it were July. 

But it's not July.  And that, my friends, is one of the points of Christmas lights to begin with, isn't it?

December leads us, no matter what our faith, into darkness.  Think, in ancient times, how despairing people must have felt as the sun sunk lower and lower in the sky.   What better way to ward off this despair than with festivals of food and light?  From the yule log, to the menorah, to the star of Bethlehem, to the candles of Kwanzaa, we can find light at the center of faith traditions in December.  Festivals bring hope and cheer in the face of despair.  And there is reason to hope because, once you've come to the shortest day of the year, you know the next day will be longer.  In that sense, the solstice marks a corner of hope for everyone in December. 

To use solar lights as part of our celebration, however, presents us with a paradox.  We need the lights to cheer is in our winter darkness, but that darkness dims the lights.  On the surface, it doesn't have the makings of a great plan! 

Yet the lights inspire.  More than symbolic, they literally reflect the power and light of the sun back to us.  They can only give us what they've received, and in so doing, they manage to extend our shortest days for a few lovely hours before their flicker turns to fade.  In contrast, the ultra bright lights that do shine "all night long" feel almost obscene--like a display of excess during a time of scarcity. 

Earlier in the month, I envied those excessive displays, but over time, I've come to appreciate our meager showing for its seasonal rhythm and its lessatarian leanings.  It offers only what the season's light can afford. 

And we've discovered that's enough.


  1. I don't know about you, but what we really need here are WIND powered lights!!!

    Also, I forgot about our comment conversation last year, so this doesn't help you too much right now...but, for future reference: Fabric Giftbags!!

    1. hey thalassa - wind powered lights would have served us the last few days as well. love the link to fabric bags! if only i could sew... :)

  2. You've spun such beautiful meaning out of this incident that I hate to turn to practical matters. But what it makes me long for is sustainable energy on a scale that you could make your house run on nothing else, on the grid. Then whatever you plugged in to your outlets would be powered by the sun or wind, with none of this futzing with little panels here and there. In CA we have solar by day, wind by night--more wind power than is currently being used, in fact.

    Really nice to find you (that is, be found by you). Have you thought about alerting the UU blog aggregator to your existence so more UUs can find you?

    1. yes - i so wish we could have more than just a few small panels. neither solar or wind are practical/affordable options in VA...yet. But we do purchase renewable energy through our utility - they buy what's available.

      as for the UU blog aggregator, i had no idea there was such a thing. I'll check it out. thanks so much for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment.