Lighting a candle in the window is a Christmas Eve memory I cherish from my Irish childhood.
This holiday practice is a common tradition in Ireland. Placing a single lighted candle in windows is a traditon practiced at Christmas and New Year celebrations in Ireland.
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An Irish Christmas Eve Tradition
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 the wait of Advent was over.
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.
Today, let's answer some of your burning questions about this old custom.
What does it mean to put a candle in the window?
Why do the Irish specifically put a candle in the window at Christmas time?
What is the symbolism of lighting a candle?
Read on to find all the answers.
Candles in the Window - A Welcoming Sign
Today, let's 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.
The sight of a candle in a window from a distance acted as a sign of friendship and welcome to any passerby who wished to visit.
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.
The candle’s welcoming light and burning flame was also considered to be a silent prayer for those who could not be with us at Christmas time. Being a country affected by emigration, many Irish families had loved ones abroad, especially in America.
The candle in the window at Christmas was lit as a prayer for the safe return of an absent person or loved one. If a safe return was not possible, as vast oceans often separated families, a candle was burned as a sign of connection and remembering. It signaled to the world that there was always someone waiting, tending the fire and thinking of family members far away.
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.
Origins in Penal Times
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.
Oppressive laws undeer British rule banned the practice of the Catholic religion all over the island of Ireland, to try to encourage people to convert to Protestantism. This was an uphill battle in Ireland, where the people believed staunchly in Catholicism, the religion shared with them by Saint Patrick.
Catholic churches were outlawed and priests hid in fear of their lives. They secretly said mass at secluded venues known as Mass Rocks.
Catholic 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.
Welcoming Mary and Joseph into our Homes
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 and the Baby Jesus into their homes was a perfect solution. A candle in an Irish cottage window was to let Mary and Joseph know they could find shelter and a welcome there.
This Irish tradition or superstition was viewed as harmless by the English and created no undue alarm. The British government did not clamp down on the practice.
A small candle in the window also became a hope that Our Lady and other saints would spot the light, and pass by a home to bless it on their way. As many Irish immigrants left their homeland for America, they brought this Irish Christmas tradition with them.
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.
Candle Burning Warm, Candle Burning Bright
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.
They had suffered enough darkness in their homeland and brought their lights of hope with them to America.
A Candle in the Window in Colonial America
Lighting a candle in the window was also a tradition practised in colonial America.
The origins and rational for this custom has been explained in many different ways.
One explanation is that it was a beacon of hope for anyone passing by on a cold winter evening. The light in the window was a sign that food and shelter would be willingly offered.
Candles burning in a window are also seen as a symbol of hope and expectation. When a loved one is away from home, the candle represents the family prayer for the safe return of their family member or friend. The burning candle was also a sign that a welcoming fire was being tended for that person.
Inns in America lit a candle to announce to travelers that they had a room available for rent.
For Christians in America and Ireland, lighting a candle in the window is also a symbol of the light from the Star of Bethlehem. This bright star guided the Magi on their long journey from the east, to the humble stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
Other reasons for lighting a candle in a window include letting the world know that a child had been born in a home. It may also have indicated that the family had been recently blessed in some way or other. A candle could be a sign of good news.
The Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish people light a single candle in each window of their home every night of the year. This tradition is not restricted to Christmastime. It is a symbol of welcome and sanctuary for strangers and loved ones alike.
The popularity of these Irish and American candle lighting traditions continues today. I hope it continues for centuries to come, representing the warmth of home and family.
Menorahs in Modern Irish Windows
Lighting a menorah is an important part of the Jewish celebration of the miracle of Chanukah.
People of Jewish faith commemorate the time when a single jug of oil burnt for eight days. The light from this oil helped the Maccabees retake and consecrate the Jewish Temple.
In today's world, a menorah lighting in a window represents the determination of the Jewish people and celebrates the fact they never abandoned their faith.
Now, if you ever travel to Ireland at Christmastime, you might think the country is home to many Jewish people. Multitudes of menorahs light up the windows of Irish homes.
Most people lighting these menorahs are Irish Catholics, who have no idea that their menorah is linked to this Jewish custom.
Electric or battery operated menorahs are sold all over Ireland, and people buy them en masse. They are an attractive and safe way to continue the tradition of lighting a candle in the window at Christmastime.
Christmas in Ireland
If you are interested in learning more about Christmas in Ireland, then you might enjoy these ramblings.
For anyone who likes to craft here's a wonderful collection of homemade candle tutorials you might like to investigate.
If you do light a real candle in your window, please remeber never to leave it unattended. Stay safe, while you honor the tradtions of our forefathers.
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)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade