What's the meaning of candles at Christmas? Symbolism, traditions and religious meanings
From the Christmas table to the tree decorations to the traditional Advent, candles continue to have a front-and-centre role during the holiday season. But where did these traditions come from? And why do candles continue to be symbolic at Christmas today? We've done some research to bring you the answers...
The History of Candles at Christmas
Candles crop up several times throughout the long history of the Christmas holiday. We take a closer look at a few of these traditions, to uncover the symbolic meanings...
Before Christianity: Candles in Paganism
Prior to the Christian holiday of Christmas, people would traditionally celebrate during mid-winter, at the winter solstice, to recognise the fact that they were over the darkest days of winter, and that lighter days - the 'rebirth of the sun' - were coming.
The festive season was often celebrated by Germanic people, in the 12-day festival of Yule. This time of year was also host to an ancient Roman celebration, known as the holiday of Saturnalia. This Pagan festival was celebrated from December 17-25 each year, during which time people would honour Saturn, the god of agriculture.
Many of the festive traditions that continue today - such as the Christmas tree - are actually of Pagan origin, despite their association with the Christian holiday. In fact, it is commonly believed that the Church chose Jesus' birthday as the 25th December simply to adopt and absorb the traditions of the Pagan Saturnalia festival.
One such tradition could also be the use of bright lights and candles. According to History Collection, Roman pagans used candles as miniature representatives of the reborn sun, to ward off evil.
The late fourth-century Christian writer Scriptor Syrus described the custom of the “kindled lights” that people used as part of the festivities for the rebirth of the sun around midwinter. Candles were also part of the Saturnalia when the Romans lit long wax tapers and gave them to guests as gifts or as offerings to Saturn.
Christianity: The tradition of the four Advent candles
In Christian tradition, Advent - more commonly known as the countdown to Christmas in modern society - encompasses the four Sundays and weekdays leading up to the celebration of Christmas.
Beginning on the first Sunday of December, a candle is lit on each Sunday prior to the big day. This is a longstanding Catholic tradition which was likely adopted by Christians in the Middle Ages, to mentally and spiritually prepare for the celebration of the Birth of Christ.
What's the meaning of the four Advent candles?
According to Mercy Home, each of the four candles hold a special significance: 'Three of the candles are purple because the color violet is a liturgical color that signifies a time of prayer, penance, and sacrifice.
'The first candle symbolizes hope. It represents the expectation felt in anticipation of the coming Messiah. The second candle represents faith. It is called the “Bethlehem Candle” as a reminder of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem.
'The third candle is called the 'Shephard's Candle' and symbolizes joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday and is meant to remind us of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus.
'On the fourth week of Advent, we light the final purple candle to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait for the birth of our Savior. This final candle, the “Angel’s Candle,” symbolizes peace.'
Tradition of decorating a Christmas tree with candles
It may seem beyond dangerous to us today, but many of the first Christmas trees were adorned with lit candlesticks - fire and all!
According to History.com, it is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree:
'Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.'
While candles on a Christmas tree do serve up some uber-cosy traditional festive vibes, fire plus wood is a really bad idea. In fact, several house fires are still caused by electric lights on Christmas trees - but we reckon this number would be far higher if lit candles were still the go-to choice for lighting our trees!
Tradition of placing candles in the window at Christmas
Placing candles in your window is hugely symbolic in a variety of ways - not just at Christmas time!
A candle in a window is often seen as a sign of respect or remembrance for a lost loved one. It is also commonly seen as a warming invitation, welcoming lost travellers. Furthermore, this gesture has become an annual tradition on World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September).
At Christmas time, placing a lit candle in your window has a variety of specific meanings, according to different religions, cultures and traditions.
In Western cultures, it is generally believed that the tradition of leaving candles in a window originates from the repression of Irish Catholicism. According to Window Nation: 'From the mid-17th through the late 18th century, the British government created oppressive laws in an attempt to restrict the practice of Catholicism in Ireland.
'During this time of religious suppression, there were no churches allowed. Catholic Priests were forced to hide out in the wilderness in caves. The priests would sneak back into town during the night to have mass with fellow believers in their homes.
'At Christmastime, Catholic families would leave their doors unlocked and a candle burning in the window to let the priest know he was welcome in their home.'
Will you be lighting some candles this Christmas? What do candles mean in your household during the festive season? Let us know!