There are some traditions that we notice and may even engage in over the years but may not fully understand the meaning of. Placing a candle in the window is one of those practices.
Putting a candle in the window is a centuries old tradition that’s been assigned different meanings by different cultures. What may have begun as an Irish Catholic tradition has evolved into a symbol of hope, safety, and a guiding light. Candles burning in the window have also been used in memoriam of lost loved ones.
Here are some facts about this custom that you may not have known before now.
Religious Significance of Candles in the Window
It’s suggested that the practice of putting a candle in the window originated in Ireland. Lighting a candle has universal religious significance that emphasizes love and warm kindness.
Safe Haven for Irish Catholic Priests
Ireland and Britain had a complex relationship. Sometime between 1501 and 1700 AD, the British passed laws against the practice of Roman Catholicism in Ireland or Britain. Called the Penal Laws, those who chose to continue to practice the Catholic faith were faced with harsh penalties. Punishment ranged from fines to imprisonment to death.
It was actually Irish Catholics priests who were most harshly persecuted and faced death if they continued to minister. Priests were instructed to leave but many went into hiding instead.
Many Irish Catholics continued to practice their faith behind closed doors. Candles in the window were a clandestine signal to priests who’d been banished from the land. During the Christmas season, faithful Irish Catholics lit a candle in their window and unlocked their doors to welcome priests into their home for Mass.
Fearful for their lives, when asked by the British about the meaning of placing a candle in the window, the Irish explained that they were welcoming the Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, and Joseph into their homes.
Persecution persisted and many were prohibited from owning land, holding public office, or even voting. And a lot of time passed before they were able to freely practice their Catholic faith.
Amish Christmas Celebration
Different faiths engage Christianity in different ways. The Amish do not practice the commercialized form of Christianity. You won’t find nativity scenes, Santa Claus sculptures, or floating angels anywhere in or around the homes of the Amish. What you will likely find is a candle in the window.
The Amish acknowledge the birth of Jesus by lighting a candle and placing it in the window. Adding many more decorations than that is considered excessive. To keep the focus on Christ, they keep it simple by celebrating the light of the world.
Although Amish customs vary by community, the one thing all of them emphasize is celebration of the birth of Christ through scripture reading and storytelling. Lighting a candle supports that sentiment.
Practical and handmade gifts are sometimes exchanged, but coming together as a family to share a meal and spend time with one another is more important to them than accumulating material goods.
Jews Helping to Spread Light
In the Jewish faith, the Hanukkah menorah is lit and placed in the window in order to spread light to others. In America, lighting candles in the window was also a symbol of religious freedom for Jews.
Unfortunately, religious persecution still exists and fewer and fewer people of the Jewish faith continue to light menorah candles in their windows for fear of physical harm or property damage.
But in response to anti-Semitic acts, non-Jews have taken up the practice of lighting a menorah in their windows during Hanukkah to express solidarity with the Jews’ right to openly practice their faith.
Engaging in this practice spreads light throughout the neighborhood into broken communities whose hearts might mend a little more every time they see a candle burning in the window.
In effect, when Jews persist with the practice of putting a candle in the window, they help communicate how one small flame can have a major positive impact on those who see it.
Historical Social Significance of Candles in the Window
Conditions worsened for the Irish, causing many of them to emigrate from Ireland. In America, they continued the candle lighting tradition.
Back then, homes were a great distance apart. Candles were used to welcome visitors or symbolize hope and solidarity during harsh winters.
A candle in the window also welcomed weary travelers who sought a vacant room and warm meal.
Over time, candles also came to represent a beacon for family members who’d gone away; it also served as a silent prayer for their safe return
For instance, during World War I families didn’t know if they would ever see their loved ones again, so they would light a candle until they returned. If they didn’t return, the candles were lit in their memory.
There was a song published in 1918 that described this exact ritual. Appropriately titled, “Place a Candle in the Window ‘Till Your Laddie Boy Comes Home,” it described the candle as watchful and peaceful.
- “Watchful light” – a silent prayer for their safe return
- “Peaceful light” – in memoriam of those who passed away
I’ve included the chorus below:
Place a candle in the window ‘till your laddie boy comes home.
Let its rays shine out afar, just like a bright and gleaming star
For to guide a weary soldier to his rest when war fires smolder
Place a candle in the window ‘till your laddie boy comes home.Lyrics by Fern Glenn, 1918
It’s both a somber and hopeful song that I’m sure helped many families cope with the uncertainty of their soldier’s return.
You can find the original sheet music in the rare book reading room of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library in Chicago, Illinois.
There’s also a PDF version of the cover and sheet music that’s been scanned by the Library of Congress.
Modern Significance of Lighting a Candle in the Window
Presently, people still use the phrase, “candle in the window.” It is still very much part of Christmas traditions, often for nostalgic reasons because it connects people with the warmth and love of others during the holiday season.
In his song, “Candle in the Window,” from the album, A Christmas to Remember, Goeffrey Andrews describes the candle as “warmth on a cold night.” The singer also shares, “There’s a candle in the window to guide you back to me.”
Another song on the topic was released in 1990 by Joan Kennedy, a Canadian country music singer. Candle in the Window was her fourth studio album. In the title song, she used much of the same symbolism that has been used for centuries, describing a candle in the window as:
- a Guiding light
- Beacon in the night
- a Resting place
Taken all together, a candle in the window is a symbol of love, hope, joy, warmth, guidance, and rest.
How to Safely Burn a Candle in the Window
If you choose to adopt this tradition, do so safely.
- Choose a window sill that’s clean, flat, and spacious.
- Make certain not to place the candle beneath hanging drapes or shades. Make sure there’s enough space between the candle(s) and any materials to either side of the candle(s).
- Monitor the candle while it’s lit. Someone should always be in the same room as the burning candle. Be mindful of drafts that can cause the flame to jump or go out altogether.
One of the safest ways to burn a candle in the window is to use electric or battery-operated ones. You can find them in big box stores, specialty shops, and even on Amazon.
Like most traditions, putting a candle in the window has communicated different meanings over time.
Some people continue to put a candle in the window for religious, social, and cultural reasons. Others simply like how it looks and feels.
Whether you want to carry on old traditions or create your own, if you choose to put a candle in the window, be safe and enjoy how it makes you and others feel.