It happened while I was driving home on New Year’s Eve. The sun hadn’t shown its face all day, and after months of not-quite-winter weather, Minneapolis was blessing us with freezing rain-slush-snow on the last day of 2011, and temperatures were plummeting. With alcohol flowing freely at various celebrations around the city that night, it was not a time that I wanted to be on the road.
I was approaching a red light when I saw the first one. Cautiously slowing my car, I glanced out my window to make sure no one was about to slide into me. And I saw a yellow light flickering up above me in the dark sky.
My first thought was that it was just a reflection in my window, perhaps of the streetlights, or someone’s headlights. And then I thought it was most likely an airplane, since I live under the westbound flight path of the MSP airport. But it was neither of these things. I looked closer.
It was…flickering. And it seemed to be not flying, but floating silently through the sky, heading south, the same direction I was going. And it was a lot lower in the sky than an airplane would have been.
The first thing I could think of was a fairy. High up in that cold, rainy sky, there was a fairy floating over my car. Or a will-o-the-wisp. Or an angel. Call it what you will, but it was etherial and magical, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
The stoplight turned green, and I kept glancing up at the strange light as I crept along the empty street. My scientific mind kept insisting it couldn’t be a fairy (or an angel), but the rain was obscuring my vision, and I couldn’t see well enough to make out more details. Then I saw another yellow glow following about 100 yards behind the first one. And there was another one beyond that. They were all floating towards me.
I had to know. I pulled my car into a darkened parking lot, turned off my headlights, and rolled down the window. Freezing rain pelted my face as I peered up into the clouds, and one of the “fairies” passed directly overhead.
It was a candle. Protected from the rain and wind by a fragile paper lantern, the heat from the burning wax warmed the air inside the lantern, causing it to rise like a hot air balloon. Somehow it had avoided the silent buildings and was floating serenely above the nearly empty streets. As I watched, it rose higher, and it disappeared into the clouds.
I sat there with my face getting wet, feeling a kind of bemusement and wonder as I watched these airborne candles disappearing into the night. As the last one was ascending, I went to turn on my headlights…and there were several more candlelit lanterns rising above the distant buildings, heading my way as the wind carried them along.
I realized that these New Year Fairies weren’t some leftover relic of a distant celebration; they were actively being lit and cast off by mysterious strangers as I watched from my parking lot a mile away.
I don’t know how long I sat there watching fairies floating off into the storm. I wondered who the candle-lighters were, and what they were thinking about as they sent their lanterns off into the dark unknown.
I realized that the answer doesn’t matter. I sat alone and watched the hopes and fears of strangers float past my window. I watched them mourn loved ones who are gone and celebrate new life in this world. I bore witness to their dreams of the new year and to the casting off of that which must go. I honored their memories, their wishes, their prayers, their sorrows, their burdens, their joys, their pain. Alone in a cold rainy parking lot, I watched the light of humanity processing into the night.
And how like life that is! We all sit, at some point, on the eve of a new beginning, trying to protect the light of our hope against the dark and the storm. We cast our hopes into the unknown future, and we watch their light disappearing into the impenetrable clouds. We may never know what comes of them.
But we also never know what stranger is sitting in that dark place, holding our hopes and helping them on their way.