Candles are one of the most recognizable symbols of the Christmas season, religious or secular. There are many holiday traditions that rely on the lighting of candles, with a variety of reasons behind them. Some hold that lighting candles during Christmas season is partially a holdover from Pagan traditions.
Yule Candles and the Christmas Season
Yule is the celebration of the winter solstice, a major holiday for many Pagan traditions that marks the shortest, coldest day of the year. When Christian missionaries sought to win converts among Pagan people, some of these Yule traditions became Christmas traditions. In parts of northwestern Europe, Yule candles would be lit on Christmas eve, and left burning until morning.
For some, they symbolized the Star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men to find Jesus. For others, they symbolize Jesus himself. Others use them as a way to see the family's future in the coming year. Even after being burned, these candles are often kept and used as a protective amulet.
Candles in the Window
For some Irish Catholic families, candles are lit in the window during Christmas season. It is often said that these candles are to light the way for Mary and Joseph to the find the stable where she would eventually give birth to Jesus. These candles also served as a beacon of hospitality -- anyone going without on Christmas was welcome to share in the family's bounty.
Though these are sweet traditions in themselves, the candles also symbolized the persecution of Catholics in Ireland. When it became illegal to perform a mass, Irish families lit these candles to hopefully attract the attention of priests who would come bless the family. When the candles also attracted the attention of the English authorities, the families created the story of lighting the way for Mary and Joseph. Today, some Irish Catholics still continue the tradition.
Some candles are lit in the time right before Christmas, and have individual meanings. Set into an Advent wreath, they symbolize the time of preparation before the coming of Jesus. Purple or blue candles symbolize fasting and repentance for old sins. This is the color of the first Advent candle, the Candle of Hope; the second candle, the Candle of Preparation; and the fourth candle, the Candle of Love. Pink candles symbolize rejoicing. The third candle, the Candle of Joy, is pink. White candles symbolize the spiritual purity of Jesus. The fifth candle, the Christ Candle, is white. The Christ Candle is placed in the center of the others on the wreath.
During the four weeks before Christmas, one candle is lit per week. This is to prepare for the coming of Jesus, and to keep him the focus of Christmas.
An Easy Yule Candle
The tradition of lighting the Yule Candle is a simple but poignant one. There are many ways to interpret these candles, from the Star of Bethlehem, to Jesus himself, to a way to bless the family who lit it. It's best to use a pillar candle for these, though some people prefer smaller ones.
- Choose a candle in seasonal colors, like red, green, white, or silver. If you like, solar colors like yellow, gold, or orange may also be used. 14 Day Pull Out Candles are a good choice that helps keep flames contained in a glass holder.
- Anoint the candle. It's customary to use evergreen fragrances, like Pine Oil or Cedarwood Oil, as these are the only plants that stay green during the cold winter months.
- Light the candle on Christmas eve, or, if you prefer, Christmas morning.
- If you like, keep the stub of the burned candle for protection. Some traditions say to rub it on the items you wish to protect, others say to hold it up and make the sign of the cross with it.
While Yule was originally a holiday to celebrate the return of the sun, Christmas celebrates the coming of God's son. Lighting candles is a significant part of many winter holidays, as the light fills homes with brightness and warmth. No matter what candle traditions you follow, candles are an enduring symbol of joy and blessing during the winter season.