Candles displayed in windows during the Christmas holiday season serve as festive holiday decorations while also carrying a hint of Christmas tradition. While window candles originally began centuries ago as a signal from Irish Catholics to their priests, the tradition has carried forward with different meanings in different households. No matter what the holiday tradition, a Christmas candle's meaning generally carries with it a symbol of hospitality.
The origins of window candles
Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, British leadership banned Catholic churches in Ireland, so priests secretly held masses in people's homes. Practicing Irish Catholics placed candles in their windows at night as a signal to the local priest and would leave the front door unlocked, allowing the priest in to hold mass.
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If members of the British government questioned the Irish Catholics about the candles, the response was that the lit candles were a Christmas tradition welcoming the holy family of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. The candle also symbolized a silent prayer of sorts, indicating hopes that saints would bless the home and those within it.
Christmas tradition transformation
Over time in Irish tradition, the lit candle in a window at Christmastime also became a beacon for weary travelers. It meant that the home displaying the lit candle offered food and a warm place to stay for any stranger passing through that might need the assistance. This Christmas tradition traveled to the United States with early Irish immigrants.
In colonial times, the lit candle maintained its meaning as a sign of welcome for travelers, as well as a means for family members and loved ones from afar to find the house, and as a symbol that those in the home remembered the lost or traveling loved ones. The candles also helped light the way for anyone traveling through the area, as homes were far apart. Lit candles also signaled to the nearest neighbors that those in the household welcomed neighbors for a visit. Over time, inns also displayed lit candles to show vacancy.
In Williamsburg, the Christmas candle tradition was practiced by some but really took off after the restoration of colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s, when an architect revived the lit candle tradition he remembered from his family in another city. Williamsburg adopted the idea, displaying lit candles in windows every evening from Christmas Eve through New Year's Day. Visitors loved the festive touch and quickly bought all the candles offered by shops in Williamsburg, taking the candles home with them to their respective cities. When electric candles hit the Williamsburg store shelves in the early 1940s, they quickly sold out.
Modern Christmas candle displays
Many homes still display Christmas candles in windows, but in far safer versions, such as electric candles, battery-operated candles or LED candles. Any of these are far safer than actual flames. Homes display these flameless candles for various reasons besides the festive holiday touch. Some use the lights to symbolize the star light the Magi used to locate the holy family. In Jewish tradition, a menorah or candelabra celebrates a Hanukkah miracle of an oil-based flame lasting eight days, when it should have lasted only one.
Others today display the lit candle in the window as a friendly gesture welcoming friends and guests; essentially anyone who knocks on the door, including those in need. While the meaning varies from home to home, the candle generally serves as some form of welcome to others, or as a remembrance and an honoring of both religious and family traditions. It's a subtle way to show the home is occupied and that it's a cozy, inviting place for the holiday season, without necessarily displaying an abundance of Christmas lights or similar decorations.