There might be times when you see someone put a candle in the window. Or, maybe you’ve noticed several houses with a candle in the window when you’re out walking.
If you’ve ever wondered what it means but couldn’t find a definite answer, we’ll try to satiate your curiosity about this practice and tradition.
The tradition has Irish origins, but a few other groups have similar traditions as well. An increasing number of people across different groups appear to be following suit. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. It’s a beautiful tradition and worth emulating.
History Of The Irish Tradition Of Putting A Candle In The Window
The tradition of putting a candle in the window on Christmas started with the Irish a few centuries ago. In large part, this tradition was a response from Irish Catholics to persecution by British (English) Protestants.
The English and Irish don’t have a good history together. There were some points in history when Ireland was under English occupation. While the Irish were persecuted in general, the English also tried to stamp out the Catholic faith of the Irish and replace it with their version of Protestant faith.
One such period was from 1691-1778, when the British government passed a series of penal laws targeting Roman Catholics in Britain, but especially in Ireland.
Under these laws, the practitioners of the Roman Catholic faith faced punishments and fines. These laws, while terrible for the general Irish citizens, were even more draconian for the Roman Catholic priests.
Any Catholic priest who practiced their faith or held Catholic Mass in Britain could be subject to terrible punishment, including death.
Though the Irish suffered from this persecution, they continued to practice their faith in secret.
However, there was still the issue of a priest saying mass at Christmas in Irish homes. The practice was very much desirable to the Irish, despite the oppressive government trying to stamp it out.
Some Irish families started lighting a candle in the window, while simultaneously leaving the house door unlocked. This was intended as a signal to Roman Catholic priests that the home was safe for them to enter and say Christmas Mass.
If questioned by British officers, the Irish would claim that the candle was a way of welcoming the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus into their homes. While the British weren’t fond of this explanation, they let it pass as a celebration for Christmas.
Changes To The Irish Tradition And Its Meaning Over The Years
Over the years, the persecution of the Irish Roman Catholics by the British government reduced. So, while there was no need to put a lit candle in the window to signal priests, people continued doing it anyway.
For some people, this was a Christmas tradition, for some it was a remembrance, others saw it as a reminder of their history. For many, the tradition actually became a way to welcome baby Jesus into their home.
As the tradition evolved, it became customary for the youngest child in the home to light the candle.
The Window Candle As A Beacon Of Hope And Hospitality
While the tradition started with religious roots, over the centuries that it has existed, lighting a candle in a window has also taken some secular meanings.
For a while, the candle in the window signified that the house was willing to accept strangers as guests. Food would be available to the guests, and if requested (and possible) lodging might be provided as well.
The tradition may have come from early Irish immigrants to the USA, though it could have been adopted by the colonists or other people as well.
For early Irish immigrants, America wasn’t quite welcoming with open arms. Irish immigrants to America often faced discrimination, distrust, and racism. For many immigrants, the prospect of sanctuary in a house that lit a candle might have been a welcome sight and succor.
It is said that many American colonists and settlers used the candle to signify sanctuary. Since houses and settlements could be very far apart in those days, travelers often depended on the hospitality of strangers. A house signifying their willingness to host someone would have been greatly appreciated by travelers.
The Finnish Celebration Of Independence
On December 6, 1917, Finland officially declared its independence from Russia. As imperial Russia dealt with revolution in 1917, Finnish leaders negotiated the independence of the country. Independence was finalized on December 4 and declared on December 6, ending more than a century of Russian rule over Finland.
As a celebration of Finnish independence, people place two candles by the window. Usually, these are special candles that have blue and white colors – the colors of Finland. Of course, the candles don’t necessarily have to be this color, though it’s preferred!
Lighting the candles and putting them on the window has taken a deeper meaning in Finland over the years. It also signifies the country’s struggles in World War 2, when they nearly lost their independence.
Overall, putting two candles in the window on December 6 in Finland represents a celebration of the country’s freedom. It’s a very patriotic day and an important celebration for the Finnish.
Some Amish Christmas Celebrations Have A Candle In The Window
Amish Christmas celebrations vary by community. However, in most communities, the Amish don’t celebrate some aspects that they consider to be commercialization or over-indulgence.
As such, there are no lavish decorations, large gifts (though small gifts are usually accepted), or writing letters to Santa Claus (and receiving gifts from him).
However, they do often celebrate Christmas by lighting candles and with some decorations. Special Christmas cookies may also be baked for the occasion!
Some people might place a candle in the window as a way to welcome Christ and celebrate his birth.
Jews Celebrating Hanukkah With Candles On A Menorah
Another common and popular tradition of putting candles near windows involves the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. Those who follow this tradition light candles on all eight days of Hanukkah.
These candles are placed on the Hanukkah Menorah, also called hanukkiah. The hanukkiah is a nine-branched candelabrum lit during Hanukkah.
Jews display the menorah in a prominent place, like in a window or a door. The idea is to share the Hanukkah miracle and joy with everyone. It is quite a thoughtful and wonderful practice.
Being able to proudly display the candles has also become a part of the exercise of religious freedom of Jews. It signifies that they’re living in places where they’re free to follow their religion and do not fear persecution.
Unfortunately, Jews in several countries, including America, have become more circumspect about this practice. Many Jews believe that placing a menorah prominently could make their home a target for anti-social and anti-semitic people.
More Explanations For Why People Put A Candle In The Window
While we have listed a few of the popular reasons for placing a candle in a window, several more traditions and groups follow this practice for various other reasons. Let’s take a look at some of these.
Announcing And Celebrating A Birth
While this practice isn’t very common, some people may light a candle near a window to signify the birth of a child. The idea is to share a happy moment with the world and to shower the newborn with good wishes, warmth, and light for their future.
Remembering Someone Not At Home Or Those Who Have Died
As birth is the truth of human life, so is death.
While lighting candles for birth is somewhat rare, many people and communities do light a candle and place it in the window as a remembrance for the dead. It is a way to convey that though departed, the person is not forgotten and continues to be remembered fondly.
In some cases, candles are also lit at the window as a mark for someone who has left home, and whose safe return is eagerly awaited.
While this is rare today, it was fairly common at different times of our history. For example, in olden times, when people went away for business or war, it could take months, if not years, until their return. A candle in the window often signified a silent prayer for their safe return.
For example, during World War I, there was a song titled “Place a Candle in the Window ‘Till Your Laddie Boy Comes Home.” As the name implies, the song encouraged families to light a candle in the window for their family members who had gone away for the war.
The song’s lyrics were written by Fern Glenn in 1918 and its music was from Maxwell Goldman. The song was fairly popular and is considered important enough to find a place in the Pritzker Military Museum & Library and the Library of Congress.
Music On Placing Candles In The Window
Though we’ve already talked of a popular song about candles placed in a window, the theme is popular enough to have shown up in many songs over the years.
Generally speaking, the lyrics reflect the sentiments based on the traditions or hopes we’ve already discussed. One of the very popular songs in this category is “Long As I Can See The Light” by the rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. Lyrics of the song start with the lines:
Put a candle in the window, but I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
‘Long as I can see the light.
The song clearly makes a connection of (someone) leaving home, but eventually returning, guided by the light of the candle.
Another famous song here is “Candle in the Window” by country music band Alabama. This is a wonderful Christmas song, talking of a candle in the window and comparing it to “God’s perfect light”.
The song lyrics reminisce of Christmas at home, perhaps in youth, with the candle forming the focus of attention. Yet, the warmth of the song and the memory of the celebration at home shines through brightly with the song!
This popular song is a Christmas tradition for several families. The warmth and feelings it conveys are amazing!
Modern Interpretations Of Burning A Candle In The Window
As we’ve discussed here, there are several thoughts, traditions, and beliefs that form the core of people lighting a candle and putting it in the window.
Those beliefs and their sincerity have encouraged many people to follow this tradition, even if they may not expressly belong to the groups and cultures we’ve discussed here.
In the modern world, the tradition has taken on more meanings and interpretations as more people choose to share the brightness of a candle with the world.
Origins of this practice with the Irish facing persecution were grim. However, in the modern world, the tradition of placing a candle in the window is taking on a more wholesome and warmer approach.
Generally, putting a candle in a window can symbolize hope, love, joy, warmth, and wishes to share brightness with the world.
Safety Concerns When You Put A Candle In The Window And Light It
If you choose to put a candle in the window, please don’t forget to take safety precautions. A candle is a flame and if not managed properly, it can be a hazard. Be careful when placing a candle in your home, so there is no trouble or mishaps.
Remember to clear any drapes, fabric, or other flammable material from the spot where you wish to place the candle. The heat from the candle flame will travel upwards, so there shouldn’t be any flammable material directly above and close to the candle.
Ideally, the window sill intended for the candle should be spacious and flat. The candle should fit the area easily, without any risk of tipping or falling over.
The choice of candles matters too. Modern flameless candles (electric or battery-operated candles) are a good choice as they don’t pose a fire hazard.
If you choose to use a conventional candle or pillar candle, consider placing a non-flammable disc or plate under it to catch wax drippings. This also prevents damage to the window sill when the candle is close to the base and ready to extinguish.
You could also consider votive candles, tealights, or other candles that come in a container.
Once the candle is lit, do make sure it isn’t left unattended. It should always be monitored to prevent any untoward event from taking place.
Finally, while we do mention a few safety tips here, your own judgment and common sense take precedence. Lighting the candle represents a beautiful thought, but it also requires responsibility and attention from those engaging in this practice.
Placing A Candle In The Window – A Roundup
As we see in this discussion and article, several cultures and people put a candle in the window. It can represent different traditions, history, and values. Across these differences, it remains a thoughtful act that’s worthy of respect.
An ever-increasing number of people are adopting this practice. They may not always have the same traditional or cultural backgrounds, but the idea of sharing joy, hope, and warmth are admirable as well.
My suggestion is to be respectful of this practice. The simple act of putting a candle in the window can often have deep emotions, thoughts, and traditions attached to it.