Christmas candles have been one of the leading holiday symbols for centuries.
They can be seen in windows and on festive tables, in Advent wreaths and Christingles.
But not everyone knows the symbolism Christmas candles hold and the origins of these traditions.
Candles have been used in religious rituals for so long that the roots of this practice are nearly impossible to track.
However, since the pagan times, people associated candle warmth and light with sun, everlasting life, and stars.
Religions have changed, but candle symbolism didn’t. To this day, Christians draw connotations between candles and joy, hope, life, and guidance.
For example, candles lit up on Christmas often represent the Star of Bethlehem or Jesus.
Some Christmas traditions related to candles are relatively young. For example, the custom of lighting up a candle in a window stems from the 17th-18th centuries.
However, church politics merely influenced it in the UK and Ireland. Other customs, such as using candles as Christmas tree decorations, have solely practical roots.
Candles have a major significance not only for Christians.
People of different religions and cultures around the globe use candles on the most important dates to commemorate those who are away, pay tribute to someone’s achievements, or as a symbol of faith and hope.
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Star of Bethlehem
The legend of the Star of Bethlehem, also called the Christmas Star, is one of the most known Biblical stories.
It narrates about the three Wise Men who came to Jerusalem ruled by King Herod from the far east, wondering where to find the newborn Messiah, who was later named Jesus.
King Herod called his best people to help him find the Messiah so that he could worship him.
They interpreted a verse from the Book of Micah, the Hebrew Bible, as a prophecy stating that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
The Wise Men then searched for Jesus, and a miraculous bright star was guiding their journey. But Herod’s plan was evil.
Instead of worshipping the Messiah, he wanted to kill him as he feared losing his power. The Wise Men saw this warning in a dream and chose not to return to King Herod.
Some theologists believe that the warning was sent by the Star of Bethlehem, too.
Regardless of whether it really has warned the Wise Men about danger, this star has helped them find the way. For this reason, the light of a candle is associated with a guiding star.
Christians believe that God guides us in life just like the Star of Bethlehem guided the Wise Men.
Therefore, by lighting up a candle on Epiphany, the second Sunday of Advent, or Christmas Eve, people commemorate the Wise Men.
Candle in a Window
The tradition of lighting up a candle in a window on Christmas Eve stems from colonial times. It originated from Irish Catholics whose faith was oppressed by British Protestants.
As a result, Irish priests became illegal and had to practice their faith in secret, traveling around the country instead of staying in one church.
Irish people started placing lit-up candles in their windows on Christmas to indicate traveling priests that they were welcome in the home.
They used to leave the doors unlocked and the house dark. Nowadays, a candle in a window can symbolize one’s faith and dedication.
Advent is a special season before Christmas. It starts on Sunday between November 27 and December 3. On each of the four Sundays before Christmas, people light up a candle, each of which has a specific color and meaning.
The first Advent candle is called the Prophecy Candle and is purple. The liturgical color purple symbolizes penance and sacrifice. On this day, people commemorate the prophets who foretold Jesus’ arrival, especially Isaiah.
The second Advent candle is also purple and is called the Bethlehem Candle. It represents faith and pays tribute to the Wise Men, Mary, and Joseph, who all traveled to Bethlehem guided by the star.
The third Advent candle is pink, called the Shephard’s Candle. The liturgical color pink symbolizes joy, so this candle represents the joy Christians experience when Jesus is born and the feeling of soon Christmas arrival.
The last, fourth Advent candle is yet again purple. The last Sunday is dedicated to final prayers and penance as Christians patiently wait for the birth of the Messiah.
Sometimes, people light up the fifth Advent candle on Christmas Eve. As Jesus is also known as “the light of the world,” this candle is called Christ’s Candle. It’s typically white, symbolizing peace and hope.
Advent candles are traditionally placed in a four-branch candleholder or in a wreath.
Christingle is a symbolic object invented by the Moravian Church in 1747.
The construction features an orange wrapped with red ribbon, with a candle on the top, and four picks with dried fruits sticking out from the sides.
Despite a childish appearance, Christingles have a profound symbolism. The orange represents the world. The red ribbon around it symbolizes Jesus’ blood that was shed when he died for our sins.
The picks with fruit on them represent nature’s gifts. Lastly, the candle is a metaphor for God’s word that guides us through the darkness.
In the UK, Christingle services and markets are held at churches to raise funds for children in need.
The tradition started in 1968, when The Children’s Society, one of the UK’s oldest and largest charitable organizations, arranged the first Christingle service in the country.
Like the fifth Advent candle, the candle in Christingle is traditionally white, representing Christ. Christingles are usually lit up on Christmas Eve to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
Christmas Tree Decorations
Do you know the origin of modern Christmas lights? Before General Electric introduced the first electric lights in the late 19th century, people used regular candles for Christmas tree decoration instead.
Candles themselves didn’t serve as a decoration but rather were necessary to light up Christmas tree ornaments.
The practice started in Germany in the 17th century and has quickly spread across all of Europe. Then, candles were attached to branches using sewing pins or wax.
Of course, candle-lit Christmas trees have specific problems. They were a significant fire hazard, and keeping the heavy candles of branches wasn’t easy.
So in 1878, Frederick Artz introduced a clip-on candleholder. But only a few decades later, electric lights started replacing candles due to their relative safety and convenience of use.
Like many modern Christmas customs, the Yule Log tradition has pagan roots. During the winter solstice festival called Yule, Germanic and Nordic pagans used to burn down logs or entire trees as a sign of sun and soon spring arrival.
The practice was preserved through centuries, and in the Middle Ages, Yule Log burning was widespread in the UK, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. But the details of the ritual of burning the Yule Log differed depending on the region.
Candles were often involved in the tradition. For instance, in Yorkshire, people would light up two large candles from a burning Yule Log, play cards, and tell ghost stories.
The youngest family member always lighted the candles, and no other light could be lit up until the candles burned down completely.
Today, the ritual of burning a Yule Log is often replaced with burning candles in a candle holder made from a small log.
That’s no wonder, as not everyone has a large fireplace or a fire pit, and in some regions, chopping down trees is prohibited. Therefore, burning candles is much more convenient and safe.
The modern Yule Log candleholder usually holds three candles, and the candle color has a meaning according to the liturgy.
For example, white symbolizes purity and joy, red – festivity or sacrifice, green – life, and anticipation, and rose – joy.
Candle Traditions in Other Cultures
Christians aren’t alone in giving special significance to candles and using them during winter celebrations.
So, during the festival of lights Hanukkah, celebrating the rededication of the second Jewish Temple, Jewish people light up candles in a Menorah.
After rededicating the temple, the story narrates that the Jewish army wanted to light up the Menorah in it but only found one bottle of oil.
Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. Thus, for this reason, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days.
A Menorah is an eight-branch candleholder. The candle number corresponds with the duration of the holiday. Thus, one candle is lit up every day, commemorating the miracle and dedication of the Jewish army.
Another winter festival which traditions revolve around candles is Kwanzaa. This African-American holiday invented in the 20th century pays tribute to black culture and was inspired by the African festival of harvest.
During Kwanzaa, people light up candles in a Kinara, a seven-branched candleholder. Each candle has a specific color and meaning, like the Advent candles.
Three of the candles are red, symbolizing the struggles of black people, one is black, representing the people themselves, and three are green, symbolizing hope and the abundance of possibilities.
The candles aren’t ordinary – these are long and thin, yellow votive candles made from beeswax.
In Orthodox Christianity context, a candle is a symbol of a person offering oneself to God.
So instead of worshipping Christ or commemorating the Wise Men, Orthodox Christians light up candles as a sign of their dedication and faith.
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