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