The History of Candles at Christmas

There are a lot of theories revolving around the popularity of candles in the Christian faith, but few are true, and even fewer people are actually privy to the real story. Candles are popular in various faiths, from Hinduism to Judaism and Christianity, but the use and significance vary substantially in each faith.

Christians in different parts of the world use different variations of lighting the candle to signify their ever-present, ever-growing faith. In Sweden for example, the famous St. Lucia’s day is commemorated by lighting candles, same as the Jewish festival of light commonly known as the Hanukkah. The origins of lighting a candle, however, go much, much deeper than all these festivals combined.

It is crucial to note that although there are several origins to the lighting of the candle during Christmas, some have more weight than others. Some are also random stories, while others are based on facts of actual historical events. It is, thus, important to know how to differentiate one piece of fiction from a series of events that have been documented in the annals of history and are actual pieces of scholarly work.

history of candles at christmas

The history of the Lit Candle

This story goes back almost a thousand years, and it involves more gloom than glory. It is actually a battle between the Catholic Church and the Protestant movement. The Protestants considered themselves forward thinkers, breaking apart from the Catholic school of thought and seeking to include science and reason into the religious equation.

The British, after conquering the largely Catholic Irish people in 1171, came up with laws of subjugation that sort to completely eradicate their religion as well as any type of hope the Irish may have had for a revolution. The logic here was, to completely enslave a race, you had to get crush their religion and impose on them your own.

The trick was legalizing this persecution, and effectively, crushing the Catholic Church. The penal laws, of the time, were, for no other reason but to persecute the Irish people and get rid of the Catholic faith altogether. What was unfortunate was that the legalization of these penal laws showed nothing short of scorn and hatred for the conquered Ireland. The Irish were considered savages, uneducated, enemies of both God and man.

The British penal laws

  • All Catholic Clergy were to leave the country by May 1698
  • If found after that date they would be exiled
  • If they returned the punishment would be nothing short of gruesome. They would be hung until unconscious, disembowelled while alive, beheaded and cut into four pieces!
  • Catholics were also forbidden from practising Catholicism in any way or form! The penalties ranged anything from confiscation of good to some as severe as death!
  • Catholics were banned from commerce, from sending their children to Catholic school, from purchasing property, from voting, from holding any public office, and, most of all, they were forbidden from practising any form of their Catholic faith.
  • The plan was not only to make it impossible to practice the faith but, essentially, to eradicate the faith altogether! The British knew there would be a few wild cards who would keep trying to defy their oppressors and practice their faith, so they made it so burdensome that it would rip the skin off their bones if they tried.

Despite all the persecution, many faithful Irish families still kept the faith. They worshipped and prayed in secret, they took the sacrament and welcomed priests into their homes despite the obvious risks, and even more inspiring, the priests still stayed, still ministered, despite the threat of torture and death.

the history of candles at christmas

The Lighting of the Candle

As is the case with many religions, the Catholic Church still flourished in Ireland despite all the persecution. Many died for their faith, but instead of people denouncing their Catholicism, they only grew stronger. The Clergy kept the ministry alive, preaching in open fields and in remote locations where they had lookouts in case they needed a quick exit.

Here is where the practice of placing candles on the windows began and still thrives even today. Catholic Irish families offered hospitality to priests and received the sacrament. These Irish families would place candles on their windows as a sign to the priests that they were welcome. They would, as well, leave their doors unlocked, so the priests would not have to knock. This practice was mainly during Christmas, and many Irish Catholic families followed it to the letter.

What they symbolized

The number was three. An Irish family would either place one candle in three different windows, or three candles on one window to signify Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

The British did eventually catch onto the practice, but once they got the explanation of open doors and priests they considered it childish superstition and silly popery. They wrote it off, referring to it as the kicks of a dying horse.

The practice continued, and it even made its way to other parts of Europe and the world, with Irish immigrants ensuring they kept and cherished the practice wherever they went. Missionaries picked up the practice in the 20th century and flew it to Africa, some even as far as North America.

This is a tale of unrelenting, undying faith. A story of a people who despite all the odds, kept hold of their faith even when they were staring down the barrel. It is very important not to lose sight of the meaning of this practice, and the people whose blood this history lesson is stained with. The greatest of all gifts is faith, even under the harshest of conditions, faith and loyalty to the church are key. For Christmas, Candles visit www.holyart.co.uk

Final thoughts

The practice of lighting the candle is one of the few remaining manifestations of the Catholic Church, a symbol that has traversed the test of time, of persecution, of subjugation and death, to show the modern world that faith truly does move mountains.

 

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