Celebrate Reason and Invention on the Darkest Evening of the Year. An alternative—or creative addition—to traditional December holidays
Winter 2011 issue -- Shouldn’t all parents want to raise their kids to think well? But if you ask most parents what that means or how they plan to teach their kids to do it, they often look at you blankly. My husband David and I, though, set out deliberately to raise kids who reason well. As part of this, we do our best to have our own thinking be models of good logic. We compliment our girls when they reason well, and we show them when they get it wrong and why.
But it’s also important to celebrate reasoning explicitly. We all need to pay attention to what’s important in life, and kids more so than adults. When you give kids a name for what they’re doing, it focuses them on the process. So we don’t just say “good point,” but “good reasoning.” We point out examples of poor reasoning when we encounter it. We talk about the rules of logic, and we remark on the fallacies that we encounter. It seems to be working; at ages 10 and 12, our daughters Ella and Madison are impressively conscious of their own reasoning processes. Indeed, when Madison has been shown to be mistaken about something, she will regale us with details of the precise chain of reasoning that helped her arrive at the wrong conclusion.
It is in this spirit that our family celebrates Light Bulb Day on the Winter Solstice. The darkest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere, anyway) is the perfect occasion to celebrate the role that reason plays in keeping the darkness at bay and making modern life and its wonders possible.
Here’s how Light Bulb Day came about. About 15 years ago, when David and I were first married, we became friendly with a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses who lived next door. Their two little girls were 6 and 8 at the time. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to celebrate Christmas, but these girls so wanted to celebrate something in December that the parents let me devise a holiday for them, as long as it had no religious connotations. “No problem,” I said.
I did not, strictly speaking, invent this holiday. I saw the name “Light Bulb Day” somewhere on the internet as a way someone had devised of celebrating the holidays without religion, and I adopted it and made it our own. (After all, isn’t that the way most inventions evolve?)
So on December 21st, the “darkest evening of the year,” the day when we symbolically most need technology, our two families celebrated human ingenuity, creativity, reason, and invention with food, games, presents, and a few rituals. Jehovah was not invited.
Reason is the unique characteristic of human beings that allows us to survive and thrive; it’s what lies behind the development of all the human inventions that have made our modern lives so much better than the “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence (as Thomas Hobbes put it) that is all that nature alone provides for us. This is why we should celebrate reason and technology.
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. One friend of mine has cheated death three times 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, it has also allowed many parents to conceive children who would not otherwise exist
The concept of a career was meaningless before the 20th century; the pressures of short-term survival required constant—usually manual—labor, without much prospect for advancing one’s material or social position. But technology changed that, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Computer technology even freed us from the need to travel to our jobs; it has allowed me to have a career as an entrepreneur in web publishing while home-schooling my daughters. Madison and Ella consequently understand—I remind them not infrequently—that new inventions freed women from the tasks that used to be necessary to manage the home. Instead of scrubbing clothes on a washboard or tending a garden, I get to pursue a career that is meaningful to me and valuable to the market. The girls get to be educated at their own pace and even help out in my business. Regular people (including the short ones in my house) now do work that drives humans forward rather than just maintains us day-to-day.
And so, on Light Bulb Day, we celebrate those men and women throughout human history whose inventions have enabled us to accomplish great things and live productive, joyful, and relatively easy lives today. We reflect on how different life is in modern times than it was in the past, now that people can be more productive with their minds than with their hands.
Light Bulb day has become a tradition for us and some of our friends. Since its first days, we have evolved it into a full holiday event.
We start with preparations. In mid-December, we create Light Bulb Day cards and send them to our scientist friends, make Light Bulb Day decorations, and make Light Bulb Day cookies to prepare for our tradition.
The evening of the Winter Solstice, we start our Light Bulb Day celebration by turning off all of the lights. We 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 by Laura Ingalls Wilder, to appreciate what a struggle it was to fight the dark and the cold even as recently as the 19th century. I talk about how much my poor eyesight would have limited my life, had I lived in an era before glasses were invented, and about how David's allergies would have made it impossible for him to work on a farm. We talk about the Winter Solstice, and why it makes December 21st the day with shortest daytime of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.
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. (Mine is penicillin.)
We talk about what we believe the future will bring: the inventions that will improve life here on Planet Earth, and possibly in the universe beyond. We wonder what it will be like once disease has been eradicated and our descendants 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 Light Bulb Day holiday music. (Our official Light Bulb Day carol is “ They All Laughed ” by the Gershwins.) We play our Inventions Trivia game or our The Way Things Work board game, we eat gold-sugar-sprinkled light-bulb-shaped cookies, and—the girls’ favorite—we whack at a light-bulb-shaped piñata that we make earlier in the week. One year I invented a life-sized board game in which one tossed a giant die; we answered questions about inventions and moved from space to space through the room. We tell light bulb jokes And our kids each get a high-tech gift.
One of the nicest aspects about Light Bulb Day is that one can celebrate it to whatever extent is practical that year. If life is busy, it’s easy to do a miniature version around the dinner table, toasting favorite inventions and inventors and talking about the positive ways life has changed. Or one can go full-throttle and prepare decorations and games for days, if that suits. It’s a lovely moment of reflection for adults and a great way to share an appreciation of reason with kids.
Celebrating Light Bulb 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 Pixar’s Ratatouille: “But humans...they don't just survive. They discover. They create!”
My girls may not choose science as a career. 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 Light Bulb Day.