Lighting a candle in the window is a Christmas Eve memory I cherish from my Irish childhood.
Every Christmas Eve we placed a single red candle in the window. My mother always told me we were lighting the way for Mary and Joseph on their way to find the stable in Bethlehem.
Our family candle lighting ritual signaled Christmas had finally arrived.
And now as I grow older I light a candle in the window with my children every Christmas Eve in the hope this wonderful Irish tradition will continue for generations to come.
This Christmas Eve, I thought we might explore this tradition a little further to discover it’s origins and meaning.
A candle in the window is a wonderful symbol of hospitality, a trait for which the Irish are renowned the world over.
But these Irish candles burning in the windows were not simply a beacon of hope for the Holy Family. They were also a sign of welcome for anyone, friend or stranger, who might be passing by on Christmas Eve.
All were welcome to stay and share whatever an Irish family may have had for Christmas. The Irish believed nobody should go without, especially at Christmas time.
This tradition was most widely practiced in the south of Ireland, especially in Munster. Since my family hail from County Cork, we continued the ancient rural tradition of lighting a candle in the window at Christmas time.
The candle was traditionally lit by a daughter called “Mary” or the youngest girl in the house. “Mary” was also called upon to extinguish the candle.
Now this practice is predominantly part of an Irish Catholic heritage. Many people from Ulster have never heard of this tradition.
The origins of lighting a candle in the window trace back to the 17th Century at the time of the Penal Laws in Ireland when the Catholic religion was suppressed.
Catholic churches were outlawed and priests hid in fear of their lives. They secretly said mass at secluded venues known as Mass Rocks. Priests often visited homes in secrecy to bless a family and to say Mass.
Irish Catholic families hoped that at some time in their lifetime a priest might visit on Christmas Eve to celebrate Mass with them.
By lighting a candle in the window they signaled to any passing priest that this was a Catholic home. The doors were unlocked allowing a priest to enter silently to join the family in prayer for Christmas.
Now all these lighted candles dotted across the countryside not only alerted priests in the vicinity, but also drew the attention of English soldiers.
The Irish needed to explain to the English authorities why they were lighting so many candles on Christmas Eve.
The rational that they were welcoming Mary and Joseph into their homes was a perfect solution. This Irish tradition or superstition was viewed as harmless by the English and created no undue alarm.
This tradition was born at a time of great upheaval for Irish Catholics. The need to signal a priest to our homes to say Mass may no longer exist, but I’m happy that we continue to light candles in the window to this very day, welcoming Mary and Joseph with open hearts.
One reader’s brother is a priest in Illinois, Msgr. Eric R. Barr, STL. He wrote a beautiful homily in 2010 called Candle Burning Warm, Candle Burning Bright, which tells the story of an Irish priest in Penal Times, and how this Irish candle lighting tradition began. You can read his Christmas story here – scroll down about half way in the page to find it.
And when I see lighted candles in the windows of American homes at Christmas, I know this Irish tradition crossed the Atlantic with our ancestors when they sought a welcome in a new land.
And so, whether you light a candle in the window this Christmas Eve, or simply light up your Christmas tree, I hope God’s spirit will reside within you as you pause and reflect upon the sacredness of this holiday.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)