The Irish Christmas Candle in the Window

Photo by: sugargliding

I have often heard about the Irish Christmas tradition of placing a single lit candle in a window, signifying that in that house there was room and welcome for Mary and Joseph as they looked for shelter on the night of Jesus’ birth. But when I went looking for the real story from the Irish themselves, I was a little surprised by what I learned, not to mention how difficult it was to learn it.

At first I thought perhaps it might be one of those urban legends—something that gets passed around the Internet but has no truth to it. Or maybe, I thought, it was a tradition that people followed but the reasoning behind it had long been forgotten. The reason I began to be skeptical was that the Irish people I knew had never heard of it. Candles for Christmas? Absolutely. Signifying that it represented an invitation to Mary and Joseph? Never heard of it.

There are Advent wreaths lit in the churches of some faiths, and in some homes as well. There are sets of three candles placed in a window. I remember those from my own childhood here in Ohio. Plastic, and the bulbs could be any color and thus not really reminiscent of real candles, although there was fake plastic wax “dripping” from the top. If the candles from my own childhood home welcomed anyone, it was Santa Claus.

Photo by: giveawayboy

But I kept asking, and soon what I believe is the true story began to emerge. Yes, some Irish folks told me, they remember those single lit candles. The youngest in the family was supposed to light them. A person named Mary was supposed to extinguish them. But the reasoning behind it all was still a bit vague. 

“You light them to remember the departed. You honor their memories.”

“They are lit to remind us of the Irish diaspora.”

“You light a candle for Jesus.”

“We did it. But why, no one ever said.”

Surely this tradition can mean many different things to different people, and none of them are better or more authentic than others.

But the manner in which it got started in Ireland was likely another story entirely. And the reason I at first had trouble uncovering the meaning of the candles was because I was asking in the wrong places. It seems to be a Catholic tradition, which would explain why the Irish Protestants knew nothing about it. And it seems to be predominately in the south of Ireland, which is why the midlanders I talked to had heard of it but didn’t know the meaning behind it. Yes, it seems the lone candle in the window represents a welcome to the holy family, a symbol that this particular house welcomes Jesus. That’s a lovely tradition — simple, yet profoundly meaningful. 

But as with all good Irish stories, there are two sides.

The tradition seems to have come out of the era of the Penal Laws (http://library.law.umn.edu/irishlaw/), a time when it was against the law for Catholics to practice their faith. Priests still said mass, but in secret.

The candles were a secret message to the traveling priests: This is a safe place for you. You are welcome to come here to say mass.

When the government officials inquired about the candles, they were told they were lit at Christmas time as a sign for Mary and Joseph and Jesus that there was room for them in this house. (If you remember the Bible story, they were turned away at the inn because there was no room, and the Baby Jesus had to be born in a stable.) This seemed harmless enough and the families were left alone.

True Irish ingenuity. They hadn’t actually told a lie, had they? The symbol was for Jesus, and for the priest who brought Christ’s light into the home because it was welcomed there.

Visit me on Facebook: www.CindysWriting.com/facebook or Twitter: @cindyswriting

Bottom photo by: Over the Top of NY

Views: 5718

Tags: Candle, Christmas, Faith, Folklore, Penal Laws, Traditions

Comment by Jean Sullivan Cardinal on December 16, 2014 at 2:05pm

My Grandmother from Limerick told us the story of the candle in the window,  I still put one in my window at Christmas.

Comment by DJ Kelly on December 17, 2014 at 1:59am

Nice article, Cindy. My belief is that the Christmas candle probably began with the Pagan lighting of the Yule log, also meant to connect with ancestors and to encourage the return of the sun. Other pre-Christian faiths, including Judaism, Hinduism etc., still have a winter festival of lights. Like many Pagan practices, it was subsumed by Christianity. The Protestants discouraged what they saw as 'Popish practices' such as kneeling before candles, images and statues,  and so it persisted mainly amongst Catholic families. However, my own Irish Protestant ancestors kept up the candle traditions as well as the burning of the tar barrel which is, I suspect, a little more Viking in origin. Whatever the origin or intention, it is interesting that even today we still love candlelight to lighten the winter nights. 

Comment by Cindy Thomson on December 17, 2014 at 10:54am

It's wonderful to carry on traditions. Thanks for reading, Jean. Thanks for sharing your thoughts too, DJ. I'm sure there are some roots there.

Comment by Peter Power-Hynes on December 26, 2015 at 8:15am

The 'Candle in the Window' theme was specifically mentioned by President Mary Robinson in her memorable inaugural speech 'as Uachtarán na hÉireann'. She famously put a symbolic light in the kitchen window in Áras an Uachtaráin, to remember the Irish Diaspora.

"Throughout her presidency, she honored the Irish diaspora, speaking about the millions of Irish emigrants from the 18th through the 20th centuries, and their roughly 80 million descendants around the world — most notably in a speech to the Oireachtas in 1995 (Robinson 1995) — and, from her first days in office, burning a lamp in the shape of a candle in the window of the Presidential residence (Áras an Uachtaráin) in Dublin (Finlay 1990). Such was the effect of her publicizing the issue of Irish emigration that Article 2 of the Irish Constitution was amended in 1998 to reflect the importance of the diaspora to Irish history and culture (“Irish diaspora” 2010)."


{http://stanford.io/1Tl8E6h}


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Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 28, 2015 at 10:06am

O I remember only too well , the candle being lit by my Granny O'Rourke, It was a lit as we came home from Mid- night Mass  to show us the light of the world . To light the way for Mary and Joseph  to a stable in Bethlehem , for all the soldiers who were still at war, for all those men who woudl never come home. .............. I still light a candle very Christmas Eve and out it in my window,........... for all the same reasons and more . 

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