Dating back hundreds of years, the Irish have a tradition of lighting a holiday candle and placing it in the window on Christmas Eve, December 24, each year. Different stories and legends surround this Catholic religious tradition, which spread to other countries with Irish immigrants. This custom of the Christmas Eve candle continues as part of Irish culture to celebrate the holiday in these modern times.
Irish Christmas Eve candle history
When King Henry II invaded and conquered Ireland in 1171, a long history of persecution against the Irish and their religion followed. 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, designed 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 Catholic religion to the people in churches. Even so, the religion and culture persevered, due much in part to clever tactics such as the Christmas Eve candle used by the persecuted people.
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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 to their home and offer them the sacraments would covertly signal this request with a holiday 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. In a way, it was a personal Christmas Eve candlelight service in a home instead of a church.
Irish families used the Christmas Eve candles to invite priests over during a time of persecution.
An alternate explanation of holiday candles
When questioned by the British authorities about the lighting of the holiday candle in the window on Christmas Eve, a family would explain that the holy night candle was used to signal the spirits of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to come and stay in the home over the holiday. Sometimes the families would light three candles—one for each member 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 the family's welcome to them with the Christmas Eve candle.
The lighting of the Christmas Eve candle
Traditionally, the youngest member of the family lit the vigil candle set in the window. Over time, the tradition changed a bit. With the invention of electricity, plug-in candlesticks replaced the original flame-based holiday candles for safety reasons. Some families displayed window candles as beacons for loved ones traveling from afar or to honor missing loved ones. Nowadays, they are used as Christmas decorations displayed through Christmas Day or longer.
While tall electric candlesticks are usually the type used for a display in a window, other electric candles may be used for a similar effect. Electric votive candles or tea light candles displayed in glass candle holders work. Elsewhere around the home, real pillar candles look nice for the holiday season as a table centerpiece; just be sure to monitor the burn time and use a drip protector beneath the candle. Also, make sure the candle is attended to at all times, and blow it out before bed.
Electric Christmas Eve candles are much safer to use than holiday candles with flames.
Decorate your home with a Christmas Eve candle in the window and create your own family traditions with this Irish custom. The illuminated electric candlestick also adds a peaceful effect when viewed from outdoors.