Lightbulb Day: A Winter Solstice Celebration
Why Not Celebrate One More Holiday:
By Debra Ross
Many years ago when my husband and I were first married, before we had kids, we became close friends with the family next door. Their two little girls were 6 and 8 at the time. The family practiced a religion that does not permit celebrating Christmas, but they so wanted to celebrate something that the parents let me devise a holiday, as long as it had no religious connotation whatever. In an age when people are inventing holidays and celebrations left and right, I thought, why not find one more good reason to celebrate.
Enter Lightbulb Day.
I did not, strictly speaking, invent Lightbulb Day. I saw the name "Lightbulb Day" somewhere on the internet as a way someone had devised of celebrating the holidays without religion, and I adopted and made it our own. (After all, isn't that the way most inventions evolve?) On December 21, the "darkest evening of the year," the day when we symbolically most need technology, our two families celebrated human ingenuity, creativity, reason, and invention. Both families have long since moved from Kreag Road, but my husband and I decided it was worthwhile to continue our new tradition with our own kids.
Celebrating Human Accomplishment
Why celebrate reason? It is the unique characteristic of human beings that allows us to survive and thrive; the development of human inventions has allowed our modern lives to be other than--to quote the philosopher Thomas Hobbes--"poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Most of us know more than one person who would not be alive today without technology, or who would not be able to live a productive life without it. My friend Patrick has cheated death twice thanks to modern medicine. Having children itself used to be a life-risking proposition, but now technology has not only taken away most of the danger, but has also allowed many parents to conceive children who would not exist but for advanced medical techniques.
The concept of a career was meaningless only a century ago, especially for people with disabilities. Without technology, my freshman college roommate, who has a severe disability, could never have become an engineering professor at Stanford. Without the invention of computers, I could not have created the career I have carved out for myself, which allows me to work from home while home-schooling my kids. I will not let my girls forget that technological developments were a large part of what freed women from the time-consuming but critical tasks that used to be necessary to manage the home and let us spend our time on pursuits that feel more meaningful, that drive humans forward rather than just maintaining us day-to-day.
And so, on Lightbulb Day, we celebrate those men and women throughout human history whose inventions have allowed us to stand on their shoulders so that we can accomplish great things and live productive, joyful, and relatively easy lives today. We reflect on how different life is today, when people--women in particular--can be productive with their minds as well as their hands.
Our Evolving Lightbulb Day Traditions
In mid-December, depending on our level of spunkiness that year, we create Lightbulb Day cards and send them to our scientist friends, make Lightbulb Day decorations, and make Lightbulb Day cookies to prepare for our tradition.
Then, the evening of December 21, to start our Lightbulb Day celebration, we turn off all of the lights, build a fire in the fireplace, light a few candles, and talk about what life was like throughout human history until the not-too-distant past. We recite Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," because it's about a man and his horse in the woods on "the darkest evening of the year." We might read a little bit of The Long Winter or another Laura Ingalls Wilder book. I talk about how much my bad eyesight would have limited my life if I had lived in an era before glasses were invented, and how David's allergies would have made it impossible for him to work on a farm. We talk about the Winter Solstice, and what it means in the Northern Hemisphere regarding daylight.
Then we talk about what humans have done to change the environment to meet our needs, to make possible a long, productive, comfortable, happy life. We toast the people who have used their minds to create the means for us to do this. We talk about our favorite inventions. (I waver back and forth between contact lenses and penicillin.)
We talk about what we believe the future will bring--the inventions others will create to improve life here on Planet Earth, and possibly in the universe beyond. We wonder what it will be like for my children's children when--we hope--disease will have been eradicated and their grandchildren wonder what life was like when people had to get sick. My daughters come up with things that they would like to invent.
Then, the real fun begins.
We turn on the lights and put on our Lightbulb Day song. (Yes, there is one: It's Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing "They All Laughed"--lyrics below.) We play our Inventions Trivia game, we eat gold-sugar-sprinkled lightbulb-shaped cookies, and--the girls' favorite--we whack at a lightbulb-shaped piñata that we make earlier in the week. One year I had made a life-sized inventions board game in which one tossed a giant die that enabled you to move from game space to game space while answering quiz questions about inventions, but that game unfortunately got lost or recycled in our last move. We tell light bulb jokes (the tasteful ones, anyway). And our kids each get a high-tech gift (usually a computer game).
One of the nicest aspects about this holiday is that one can celebrate it to whatever extent is practical that year. If life is busy, you could do a miniature version around the dinner table, toasting your favorite inventions and inventors and talking about the positive ways in which life is different now than it used to be. Or you can go full-throttle and prepare decorations and games for days, whichever suits you.
Here are some links to help you get started on creating your own Lightbulb Day traditions.
- Play The Way Things Work Game
- Invention History and Quiz
- The Story Behind the Inventions from Trivia-Library.com
- Light Bulb Jokes
Our Lightbulb Day song is "They All Laughed," by George & Ira Gershwin. Frank Sinatra had a popular version, but we think the Ella and Louie version is much better.
They All Laughed
by George & Ira Gershwin
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round.
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound.
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly.
They told Marconi wireless was a phony, it's the same old cry.
They laughed at me wanting you, said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through, now they'll have to change their tune.
They all said we never could be happy, they laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho! Who's got the last laugh now?
They all laughed at Rockefeller Center, now they're fighting to get in.
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin.
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat, Hershey and his chocolate bar.
Ford and his Lizzie, kept the laughers busy, that's how people are...
They laughed at me wanting you, said it would be, "Hello, Goodbye."
But oh, you came through, now they're eating humble pie.
They all said we'd never get together, darling, let's take a bow,
For ho, ho, ho! Who's got the last laugh?
Hee, hee, hee! Let's at the past laugh,
Ha, ha, ha! Who's got the last laugh now?
Celebrating Lightbulb Day is about celebrating human individuality. Other people may laugh at first, at the new, the startling, the unfamiliar. But those who are creators persist. As the rat Rémy says in Disney's Ratatouille: "But humans...they don't just survive. They discover. They create!" My girls may not choose science as a career; that will be up to them. But whatever they choose, I am sure they will discover and create in their own way. That's what I hope they take away from Lightbulb Day.
Have other suggestions for how to celebrate inventions? I'm happy to put up comments. Please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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