Q: Every winter I see a candle displayed in my neighbor’s window. It’s beautiful, but I’m not sure if there’s more to it than a nice decoration. What does a candle in the window mean?
A: On a cold and dark winter night, a candle lit in the window of a home can be a lovely sight. For some, this might just be a cozy holiday decoration, but for others, candles burning in a window can mean something greater.
While typically candles in windows are associated with the winter holiday season, there are multiple reasons and meanings behind a candle in the window. Your neighbors may even burn candles in their windows for different reasons throughout the year and choose specific candles to represent certain observances or meanings.
Read on to learn about the significance of candles and how the tradition of candles in windows has evolved over time.
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The tradition of candles in windows was sparked by the Irish.
This winter practice dates back hundreds of years as a Christmas tradition for Irish Catholics. However, it didn’t start under the best of circumstances.
In the 1600s, Irish Catholics were persecuted for their faith under penal laws. These laws were established with the hope that Catholics would denounce their faith and accept the Church of Ireland.
During this time, Irish Catholics started the tradition of putting candles in the window to keep their faith alive. Catholic families would display lit candles in their windows during the Christmas season to secretly invite a passing priest into a family’s home to say Christmas Mass. The youngest child was traditionally the person to light and blow out the candles, and families would leave their doors unlocked for priests to discreetly come and go from their home.
If questioned about the purpose of the candles in the windows, the Catholics told Protestant officers the candles were a symbol to welcome the Holy Family into their home for Christmas. This excuse was accepted by the Protestant government and allowed Irish Catholics to continue practicing their faith in secret.
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Today, a candle in the window can mean several different things.
Since its origin with the Irish in the 17th century, the meaning of a candle in the window has evolved. Today it’s less likely a sign for religious discretion, but a tradition continued by families over the years to celebrate Christmas.
However, there are other reasons people may burn candles in their windows that aren’t related to the Irish Catholic tradition. People of other faiths display holiday window candles, and some homeowners choose to burn candles for non-religious reasons.
Sometimes, the color of the candle can signify the meaning. For example, candles that are white may symbolize hope and happiness, whereas other colors, like red, may symbolize passion or energy.
Here are the most common meanings of a candle in the window today.
To Signify Welcome or Sanctuary
Similar to the origin of a candle in the window to welcome a priest into the home, a candle in the window today can be a sign for homeowners to welcome others passing by, and to let passersby know food or shelter is available. This is a tradition that dates back to colonial times, when homes had a great distance between them. Travelers who saw a candle in the window of a home would know they could find refuge there on their journey.
To Celebrate Hanukkah
Lighting candles is also a centuries-old practice in the Jewish faith. On each night of the eight days of Hanukkah, those who celebrate light the menorah, which is a nine-branched candelabra. It is a tradition to display the menorah in a window or other prominent place, like a door. This is to celebrate the Hanukkah miracle and share it proudly with others.
To Announce a Child has Been Born
Candles have a long history of representing celebration, hope, or purity. Because of this, some people may display a candle in the window as a sign of good news, such as the birth of a child.
To Remember Someone Who has Died
Another reason someone may have a candle burning is because they are upholding a tradition to light candles for the dead. Lighting candles for someone who has died is a common ritual for many, regardless of faith or background. The light of the flame signifies that the memory of the person who passed still lives on in the hearts of their loved ones.
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Is it even safe to burn candles in windows?
While this tradition has survived for hundreds of years, it doesn’t come without its safety risks. Christmas candlesticks and other candles in the window must be used with caution and shouldn’t burn too long. According to GoodLight Candles, you shouldn’t allow a candle to burn for longer than 4 hours.
For those interested in displaying candles in the windows, be sure to follow these safety tips:
- Make sure windows are securely closed and there’s no draft that could affect the flame.
- Clear the area of clutter and ensure any flammable objects (like curtains) are safely away from the flame.
- Make sure the candle setup is secure and the candle won’t tip over or spill wax.
- Never leave the house with candles burning.
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