The dark days of light

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s THE HOLDOVERS, a Focus Features release. PHOTO: Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

In winter, I turn my garden bean arch into a light arch. I run strings of white lights along each metal wire of the cattle panel. Then, when I am sad, I stand under the lights.

This has been happening more often. After all, this is a sad season in sad times. I do not mean to diminish the joy of the holidays that many feel. I feel this way sometimes, too. But whenever the happiness so commodified in our society eludes you, I suggest eight strings of white lights strung along an arch. It cannot hurt.

I suppose a street light might work in a pinch. A flashlight. A fire. Anything that isn’t a phone.

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Sometimes I think of ancient times, when the sun provided the only light. How dark December would seem. At the coldest hour, dim dawn light illuminates the silhouette of trees on the horizon. It’s not light you can see by, only the promise of light to come.

In time, we learned to command light. We hold it, shape it and aim it in different directions. We can even turn it into pictures and stories.

My wife and I recently watched a new movie, “The Holdovers.” The film stars Paul Giamatti as a New England prep school history teacher assigned to chaperone a group of boys left behind over Christmas break. It’s set in 1970 and filmmaker Alexander Payne endeavored to make it look and sound like a film shot that year, too.

Here is a plain small man with more righteousness than money, smarter than most but not as smart as he thinks. He is juxtaposed with the classical opulence of old money. The characters wear clothing of brown and gray, filtered by the silver smoke of cigarettes and pipes. Everyone in the movie has a very good reason to be sad. Each finds their own way to pretend otherwise for as long as possible.

In a way, that’s what makes “The Holdovers” a candidate for permanent entry in the Christmas movie canon. In another time, perhaps, Christmas was a season when there was more than usual. Now, set amid the thrum of advertising, it cannot do anything but disappoint. It cannot dress all the wounds of years and lifetimes. And yet, hope burns underneath.

“Not for ourselves alone are we born,” the teacher Paul Hunham quotes Cicero, in the original Latin, of course. He’s being assigned the task of ministering to kids abandoned by their families, a job he doesn’t want, for which he is ill suited. He speaks insincerely, but ends up summarizing the very idea upon which the whole story turns.

The pain of loss underpins the story that follows, along with hilarity derived from the human tendency to take ourselves far too seriously. I’ll leave the details to your own viewing of the movie. Instead, I’ll simply remind that Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s Eve in Times Square share one thing: the promise of hope in hopeless times.

Standing under small lights on the darkest of nights reminds us of two truths. First, it is true, the darkness is unending. It rolls in black waves of emptiness beyond our imagination. Second, even one small light cuts through all that darkness. More lights, less darkness. We are the lights.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Merry Christmas, Aaron. Thank you for the light you bring.

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