Christmas Candles and their Customs: The Warm Glow of Tradition

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The tradition of using candles during the Christmas season dates back centuries, symbolising the light and warmth that the holiday brings to people’s lives. Over time, various customs and practices involving Christmas candles have emerged in different cultures and communities around the world. 

The Origins of Christmas Candles

The use of candles during Christmas has its roots in ancient pagan practices. During the winter solstice, people would light candles and bonfires to celebrate the return of the sun and to ward off the darkness of the longest night of the year.

With the spread of Christianity, these practices were adapted to align with the Christian faith, and candles became symbolic of the birth of Jesus Christ, who is often referred to as the “Light of the World.”

four red candles
Photo by Max Beck on Unsplash

Candle Customs Around the World

Different regions and cultures have developed their unique customs and traditions involving Christmas candles. Some notable examples include:

1. The Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath is a custom originated in Germany and involves lighting a candle on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. The wreath is made from evergreen branches and holds four candles, symbolising hope, peace, joy, and love. On each Sunday of Advent, an additional candle is lit, culminating in a fully lit wreath on the final Sunday before Christmas.

2. The Irish Candle in the Window

In Ireland, it is customary to place a single lit candle in the window on Christmas Eve. This tradition dates back to the time when Catholicism was suppressed in the country, and the candle served as a secret sign to priests that they were welcome to perform Mass in that home. Today, the candle symbolises a warm welcome to anyone who may be away from their family during the holiday season.

3. La Fête des Lumières

In the French city of Lyon, a festival of lights is held every year in early December, where residents place candles in their windows to honour the Virgin Mary. This tradition dates back to 1852 when the city was spared from a cholera epidemic. The residents pledged to pay tribute to Mary if their city was saved, and so the tradition of lighting candles in the windows was born.

colourful hannukah candles lit
Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

4. Hanukkah

Although not a Christmas tradition, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, occurs around the same time as Christmas and has a strong candle-lighting component. Families light the menorah, a special candelabrum with nine branches, to celebrate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days when the temple was rededicated.

5. Christmas Candle Processions in Guatemala

In the town of Antigua, Guatemala, locals and tourists gather annually for “La Quema del Diablo” (The Burning of the Devil) on December 7th. This event marks the beginning of the Christmas season and features a large procession of people carrying candles and torches through the streets. Participants light bonfires to symbolically cleanse the city and prepare for the arrival of Baby Jesus.

6. The Feast of Santa Lucia in Sweden

On December 13th, the Feast of Santa Lucia is celebrated in Sweden, marking the start of the Christmas season. Young girls dress in white gowns with red sashes and wear a wreath of candles on their heads. They form processions, singing traditional songs and carrying candles to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness. This custom originated from the story of Saint Lucia, a Christian martyr who, according to legend, brought food to persecuted Christians in Rome while wearing a wreath of candles to light her way.

7. Polish Oplatek Tradition

In Poland, families gather on Christmas Eve for a special meal known as Wigilia. Before the meal, they share oplatek, a thin wafer similar to communion wafers, along with well-wishes and blessings. A lit candle is placed in the centre of the table to symbolise the presence of Jesus Christ, and an extra place setting is prepared for any unexpected guest or for the souls of deceased family members, inviting them to share in the warmth of the celebration.

8. Greek Christmas Boats

In Greece, a maritime nation with a long history of seafaring, locals traditionally decorate boats with lights and candles during the Christmas season. These lit boats, called “karavakia,” can be found in harbors, town squares, or even in private homes. This custom pays tribute to the sailors and fishermen who braved the seas, and the boats’ lights symbolize the hope and guidance they provide, much like the Star of Bethlehem.

christingle candles
Christingle candles

Each tradition is unique, reflecting the cultural heritage of the region and the universal themes of light, hope, and unity that candles symbolise during this festive season.

The Symbolism of Christmas Candles

Christmas candles hold deep symbolic meaning, representing the themes of light, warmth, and hope that are central to the holiday season. By lighting candles, people are reminded of the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus. The flickering flame of a candle also serves as a visual reminder of the eternal nature of the human spirit and the promise of renewal that the Christmas season brings.

The tradition of using candles during Christmas is a powerful and enduring custom that spans many cultures and generations. Whether it’s an Advent wreath, a candle in the window, or a festival of lights, these practices create a sense of warmth, unity, and hope during the festive season. As families and friends gather around the soft glow of Christmas candles, they are not only celebrating the birth of Jesus but also perpetuating a timeless tradition that connects them to the past and lights the way toward a brighter future.

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