The meaning of a candle in the window at Christmas varies depending on the homeowner's personal beliefs and/or holiday decor. While one or more lit candles in a window may be due to Christmas, Hanukkah or other religious or spiritual traditions, it may also indicate a secular celebration of the holidays. In general, candles are symbolic of the holiday season, which stretches from Thanksgiving to the Feast of Three Kings, held on January 6 or 19 depending on the church.
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The Jewish Menorah
The nine candles of a candelabrum placed in a window commemorate the miracle of Hanukkah, or Chanukah, when the menorah in the Second Temple burned for the eight days despite only having a single day's supply of oil. Also known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication, the followers of Judaism commemorate the retaking of Jerusalem from the Seleucidian Greek Empire and the rededication of the Temple in 139 B.C. Hanukkah follows the Hebrew calendar, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, which corresponds with the current calendar system of late November or December.
At nightfall during the eight-day celebration, another candle is lit until all eight candles plus the center candle are burning. Originally, the menorah was placed in a doorway, but today, it is often placed prominently in a window. In addition to the ceremonial candle lighting, traditional treats, such as potato pancakes (latkes), doughnuts (sufganiots or zelebis) and a variety of dairy foods, are enjoyed and gifts are exchanged.
Las Posadas Celebration
The 10th and 11th century tradition of Bible plays and processions was reintroduced to Catholicism in 1586 when the Spanish priests sought to teach the story of Jesus and his birth in Central and South America. Coinciding with the winter solstice and celebrations of Aztec deities, Las Posadas has become a nine-day Christmas pageant practiced by Catholics and Protestants in Latin America and the North American Southwest.
Each night between December 16 and 24, Mary (María) and Joseph (José) lead a procession of candle-carrying angels, shepherds, pilgrims and children who sing posadas and ask for shelter. Carried by participants, placed in bags or tin candleholders and illuminating windows and the interiors of homes, candles are integral to Las Posadas processions and celebrations.
The Irish Tradition
The Irish tradition of placing candles in the window is a symbol of hospitality, welcoming the holy family as well as friends and strangers into the home on Christmas Eve. A darker part of the tradition stems from the 17th and 18th century, when the Catholic religion was outlawed. A candle in the window on Christmas Eve indicated that the family was Catholic and would welcome any passing priest to enter and celebrate Mass. The occupying English soldiers saw the candles as a harmless Christmas tradition, not realizing the underlying intent.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the restrictions on Catholicism in the United Kingdom were eased. While it is no longer necessary to hide Catholic beliefs, the tradition of a candle in the window on Christmas Eve continues to welcome Mary and Joseph to homes in Ireland and wherever Irish people now live.
Williamsburg Window Candles
In Colonial Williamsburg, window candles have become a Christmas tradition. While not based in local religious traditions, landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff suggested adding his Boston family's tradition of placing one lit candle in each window to the four restored buildings of the historic district. With the introduction of electric candles, using modern window candles gained in popularity and spread across the United States.
Kwanzaa and the Seven Candles
Created in 1966, the African American Kwanzaa holiday is celebrated from December 26 through January 1. One additional candle is lit each night through the weeklong observance. The seven candles of the candelabra, or kinara, are symbolic of the seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, to build and empower the community: unity, self-determination, community work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The kinara may be placed on the table with other symbolic elements of Kwanzaa, displayed on a fireplace mantel or put in the window.