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.
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My Grandmother from Limerick told us the story of the candle in the window, I still put one in my window at Christmas.
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.
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.
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)."
Heritage Partner 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 .
Another great slice of Irish history.
May I respectfully add to the story with a bit more information. On Christmas Eve, the windows of the house were decorated with garlands of holly and ivy with candles centered in each, often in a hollowed-out turnip for support. The Christmas Wreath we know today should remind us of that Irish tradition which began back in 16th century, when Penal Laws outlawed the Catholic religion and clergy. The Irish, intent on keeping their faith, secretly met outlawed priests to celebrate Mass in the woods and mountains whenever they could. Mass might be celebrated once a month, or even less, but one time they never missed was Christmas. In spite of persecution, Christmas still brought hope. An alien power may have controlled the land, but they couldn’t control the hearts of the Irish; they still had their customs, faith, and pride, and by God they would have their Mass. Some of those customs, by the way, were older than the race that ruled them, originating back in pre-Christian days, like the ringing of doors and windows with holly and ivy. That came from the ancient Celtic custom of ringing the openings of a dwelling with those magical leaves to ward off the evils of winter. After all, holly and ivy remained green when all other plants died, so they were deemed immune to the killing force of winter. The custom carried into the Christian era as a decorative function, and the Brits marveled at the hope that still burned in hearts they had tried so hard to turn. The source of that hope was their faith; and in each community, courageous families would risk fine and imprisonment to attend a mid-night Mass celebrated by an outlawed priest, and an especially brave family would host the celebration. Naturally, the house to be used was kept secret until just before the Mass was to begin, at which time a lighted candle was placed in the window to signal the faithful. Once the signal was given, candles were lit in every house window to confuse any who might try to interfere with the celebration. To the Irish, the meaning of the candle was clear, but to the stranger, it was merely an extension of the pagan custom of holiday decoration. The candle, eventually became part of the custom, remaining long after its need as a signal disappeared. Today’s wreath serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our ancestors who placed a candle in a holly-encircled window to send out the message "The Lord is in this house tonight"
Thanks for the very interesting explaination.