It is the time of year for little lights. There are tiny points of light along the eaves of our neighbors’ houses. There are lights along the city streets, too. Some are arranged in a pattern so they look like dolphins. Some are shaped like shooting stars. On Sunday, some houses began to light the first of eight candles, one for each night. On Sunday, other houses began to light the first of four candles, one for each week. In our house we have been lighting a pair of candles at dinner since the time change, because it’s dark and everything seems to feel more special in the dark when you have a candle.
I’ve always liked tiny points of light in the darkness. I remember flying along over the city of London on the Peter Pan’s Flight ride at Disneyland—the magical pirate ship we rode in turned a corner, and suddenly we were in a velvet darkness, with only pinpricks of light sprinkled beneath us. I wanted to go on the ride over and over.
Ever since I left Disneyland, I’ve found other small things that light up. I love fireflies and glow worms and stars and even oil rigs at night, even though by day I would never tell anyone this. I love meteor showers, or at least the idea of meteor showers. Jaded by several fizzling observations, I was telling my husband this summer that I’d never really been impressed with the meteors I’d seen. They looked like fast-moving satellites, I said, not the amazing things with fiery tails that I’d read about. Five minutes later, a burst of light shot overhead with a tail that spanned half the sky.
When I wrote about oil rigs, I talked to William Kelly, a psychologist who’d coined a term to describe our love of the night sky: noctcaelador. He was kind enough to indulge my questions about whether the small, distant lights of an oil rig might resemble stars, and whether these could share some of the same connection that people have to the sky.
He thought that it was possible that the small lights we have today could trigger a similar response that people have experienced for thousands of years when looking at the night sky. Not that the stars have stopped drawing us in, even as light pollution has hindered our ability to see them; one survey found that people ranked stargazing as their favorite evening activity after reading and watching television. Our little lights may be just stand-ins for the ones above our heads.
I’m sure some of my love for small light at this time of the year has to do with the holiday season. Little lights remind me of magic, they tell of gifts to come. They might connect us with our own past winter seasons, and could also connect us with an older time, when banishing the darkness was more difficult than flipping a switch.
Kelly has talked to those he’s worked with about the sky’s affect on them. I don’t know why, said one of his psychotherapy clients, it just makes me feel better. Kelly wonders whether people use the sky’s vastness and constancy to regulate their psyches.
I think the night sky can be so many things for us. Maybe it keeps us stable as we spin beneath it. Maybe it’s the wonder of the dark. Maybe the stars, and all the small, star-like cousins below, are little points of hope. When we look closer, they’re bigger than anything we’ve ever seen.
Image by Craig Dennis via Flickr/Creative Commons license