Healthy Mind

How Breakfast by Candlelight Brightens My Dark Mornings

Jessica Kerwin Jenkins

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Photo: Stocksy/Vera Lair
So many ancient traditions center around lighting candles at this time of year, as the days grow darker and then darker still before the winter solstice on December 21. There’s Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, Advent, which I celebrated as a child, and Hanukkah, too. There is nothing as prettily cozy as the glow of candles on a dark night. That famously soothing glow can heighten romance or help us into a meditative state, and is an intriguing part of the human legacy.

But while so many of us these days know about the physiological effects of blue light and the benefits of good sleep hygiene, and while some might have already introduced warmer wavelengths, and even candles, into our end-of-day routines, my own favorite winter ritual is breakfast by candlelight.

It started one cold winter here in dark Maine, an extra dim season during which I tracked my daughter’s mounting anxiety, which seemed to have no discernible source. She was in first grade and would wake up full of worry about anything—everything—from her first breath, a pattern that set the rest of the day spinning in all the wrong directions.

I read books. I made adjustments—vitamin D, dietary shifts (more avocado), bedtime rituals. But speaking on the phone one night with a friend, who is also a very wise pediatrician, it suddenly became clear. “That transition between being awake and asleep is really dramatic for some people,” she explained. “It’s not just going to bed at night, it’s how we wake up, too.” Instead of waking my daughter amidst the clatter and commotion of the rest of the household, I needed to cast a deliberately slow spell, one that would interweave her dream world and the present with subtle care. Somehow, I had to get out in front of it all. So, the next night, I told her that I’d be in very early to wake her up, and that we’d take a star hike before breakfast. I said it before I’d thought it through. It was a leap, but sometimes that’s just what’s needed.

For some weeks, we walked that way through the dark, hand in hand each morning, silent, or nearly so, necks craned towards the black and shining sky, utterly in awe.

I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m., then, by the light of a small flashlight, gently, and so quietly, guided her out of bed and through the dark house towards her snow boots and parka. Bundled up against the black stillness, we crunched down the gravel road between the snow-covered fields. There were no streetlights near our house—the moon had already set, and the stars overhead that winter were incredible, bright, shining, unbelievably jewel-like, so close you could certainly touch them. And, for some weeks, we walked that way through the dark, hand in hand each morning, silent, or nearly so, necks craned towards the black and shining sky, utterly in awe. Then we’d turn around, and slip back inside in the dark, warm house, and she’d sit at the table.

With a bit of pomp, I lit a vast number of candles in front of her place—12 or more—all burning brightly on the dining room table. The glow was magnificent, almost as dazzling as what we’d seen outside, and she’d watch them flicker, completely absorbed over the next half an hour as she took tiny, little bird bites of her eggs and toast, slowly waking up, until the sun rose beyond the windows, she blew out the candles, and my husband and older daughter yawned sleepily down the stairs. When spring came, and the mornings grew bright and clear, our breakfast ritual ended, and so did the need. It was a phase.

This year, however, I’ve returned to those mornings and to savoring the still, quiet dark of early morning before first dawn, basking in the warm glow of candlelight before anyone else is awake. It’s become my own seasonal ritual, with a feel all its own. Before bed, I place one candle and a box of matches on the kitchen counter next to the coffee grinder, a mug, and everything else I’ll need to get started. Just offering myself this decadence of ease feels like a luxury. But then, as the coffee brews, I light the whole candelabra—just for me—a full blazing array to mark the moment.

With a warm cup pressed between my palms, I sip my morning coffee by candlelight, an homage to times past, but also to the ancient times. And I drink in every moment—there’s nothing to do but soak it in. Of course, I know that these dark mornings won’t last. Spring is already on the horizon, but enjoying my earliest morning in this way reminds me of the triumph of seizing the moment, and the beauty of bright, glowing simplicity.

Here's how the darkness affects your circadian rhythm, and the glowy product another writer uses to stave off her seasonal affective disorder. 

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