My officemates and I recently hung two strings of white lights on either side of the Exhibits Department. Since then, I’ve found myself looking up from my desk work to marvel at them (and notice that every eighth bulb blinks like a star!), but I’ve always been unclear why simple lights are so captivating.
Maybe you remember something similar, but stringed lights always recall a view from my childhood: A winter night, sitting on top of the stairs, staring through wooden rungs at the Christmas tree below, glowing with the colored lights my family had threaded through its branches hours before.
The fascination with holiday lighting transcends any particular tradition or faith: Hanukkah is commonly called the “Festival of Lights”; the Christian “epiphany” refers to the star that led the wise men to Jesus’ birthplace; Kwanzaa begins with a candle lighting ritual; one of the holy books of Islam repeatedly explores the divine through the metaphor of light. And so on.
In winter, many of us participate in the art of decorating the outsides of our homes. We might even engage in some (hopefully) light-hearted competition with our neighbors over who can best brighten a cul-de-sac or street side. If you live anywhere near The Leonardo Museum, you probably know that the LDS Church makes a colorful beacon of Temple Square with an uncountable number of lights that thousands of families visit every year.
The Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma — who we at The Leo admire — did something similar. She built a series of famous infinity rooms that use mirrors and lights to create a wondrous panorama. For many visitors, these installations produced the same looks of marvel that we see in children during the holidays.
And maybe, when the experience is distilled down to its basic parts — a dark room and lights that resemble stars in the night sky — we can better understand the source of our fascination. For both children and adults, across culture and time, lights are signs of life. And that certainly seems worth celebrating.
If you’re curious to learn some of the physics of light and would like to play with a laser beam, consider coming to The Leo this holiday season to use the newest addition to Leonardo’s Workshop, a laser table!