Why Are Candles Placed in the Windows of Irish Homes on Christmas Eve?

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Irish families light a candle on Christmas Eve as part of a their culture.
Irish families light a candle on Christmas Eve as part of a their culture. (Image: Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Dating back hundreds of years, the Irish have a tradition to light a candle and place it in the window on Christmas Eve, December 24, of each year. Different stories and legends surround this Catholic religious tradition which has spread to other countries by Irish immigrants. This custom continues as part of Irish culture in the modern day, to celebrate the holiday.

History

When King Henry II invaded and conquered Ireland in 1171, a long history of persecution against the Irish and their religion would follow, according to Father William Sanders of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Under the rule of Elizabeth I and Oliver Cromwell, the British were primarily a Protestant nation. These and later rulers passed a series of laws, called the Penal Laws, to eliminate Catholicism, the main religion of the Irish people, from Ireland. The laws forbade the practice of Catholicism in Ireland and outlawed the clergy from teaching the religion to the people. Even so, the religion and culture persevered.

Candles in Windows

Due to the religious persecution the Irish people faced, families would find ways to practice their faith without alerting the British. On Christmas Eve, an Irish family who wished to have a priest come stay in their home and offer them the sacraments would covertly signal this request with a candle lit in the window. The family would leave the door to their home unlocked and the traveling priest would offer to say mass in exchange for their hospitality, starting a tradition that would last for many years to come.

Other Explanations

When questioned by the British authorities about the lighting of the candle in the window on Christmas Eve, a family would explain that the candle was used to signal the spirits of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to come and stay in the home. Sometimes the families would light three candles, one for each of the Holy Family. This would satisfy the British and allow the families to practice their faith in secret. It also started the alternate legend that Mary and Joseph would reenact their search for a place to stay every Christmas Eve and would come to the home of a family that signaled its welcome to them with the candle.

The Lighting of the Candle

Traditionally, the youngest member of the family lights the candle that you place in the window. A girl with the name of Mary is then given the honor of extinguishing the flame. Sometimes families reverse these roles or opt to have an electric candle instead, for safety, nowadays. This tradition was brought to many other countries, including the United States, by Irish immigrants and continues today. Decorate your home this Christmas with a candle in the window and create your own family traditions with this Irish custom.

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