I share a tidbit of history each month in THE WALPOLE CLARION in my “column,” DID YOU KNOW THAT…? In the December, 2019, issue I explored the background behind placing candles in windows. As the season approaches, you may want to know why candles are appearing, and you may wish to display your own. (28 November 2020 – I write to share, and this post continues to get a high number of daily reads. I would love to know the source directing readers here. Keep looking, thank you, RAY) — 11 December 2021 – this post has become the top Google answer to the question “candles in windows history.” Over 10,000 reads in two years, and over 1,000 in the past two weeks. Thank you so much – RAY (PS – below are the “candles in the windows” of my 1806 Colonial on a quintessential New England Village Common.
DID YOU KNOW THAT…
… the tradition of lighting candles in the windows of homes during Christmas, dating to colonial times, was brought to America by the Irish? Candles in windows have always been considered a sign of welcome to others. In early America, when homes were often miles apart, the sight of a distant candle in a window was a sign of “welcome” to those wishing to visit.
Religious practices and persecution have a long and complicated history in Ireland. As early as 1171, King Henry II’s invasion of Ireland began persecution against the Irish. Pagan solstice celebrations were replaced by Christmas celebrations. Protestantism attempted to replace Catholicism. The British Government, between 1691 and 1778, perfected their oppressive Penal Laws, targeting Catholics in an attempt to squash the religion. Catholic priests were not allowed to practice their faith. Ordered to leave the country, the priests instead went into hiding. The Irish were forced to obey British Rule.
During Christmastime, faithful Irish Catholics would, in darkness, light a candle in the window and leave the door unlocked. This was a sign to priests it was safe to slip into their home to say Mass. In return they offered hospitality to the priest. The British, questioning the Irish about the candles, were told it was their way to welcome Joseph, Mary, and the Baby Jesus as they sought shelter. On immigrating to the United States, the Irish brought this holiday practice with them.
The tradition of the lit candle in the window in colonial America has been interpreted in many ways. It has been seen as a beacon of hope for any passerby during the holiday season, and signaled strangers that there would be food and shelter there, should they ask. Candles also showed hope that Mary and other saints would pass by their home and bless it. The candle’s welcome was part silent prayer for the safe return of an absent person, and part sign there is someone waiting and tending the fire. Other interpretations say the candle would be sending a message – a child had been born or a family had received a blessing of some nature. Often the candles would be commemorating a community event or celebration. Inns (and now bed and breakfasts) used candles announcing rooms were available, and leading travelers to the door. The key being the sense of welcome.
When Colonial Williamsburg was established, they were unsure how Christmas should be represented. Remember, it was not much of a holiday in colonial America. They hung colored lights on ten evergreen trees in 1934, continuing to search for decorations representative of the period. The landscape architect remembered his family’s practice of placing a candle in their Boston window in 1893. With that idea, the next year a single lighted candle was placed in the windows of the four buildings open to the public. The candles were lit from 5 to 10 PM between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Worried of fire, four janitors were paid $1.00 each to light the candles and guard against fires.
Electric candles solved the concern with fire. Colonial Williamsburg visitors liked what they saw, and wanted candles to take back home. In 1941, Williamsburg department stores sold their entire stock of 600 electric candles by Christmas Eve. Today, having candles in the windows is even easier. My candles take batteries, and are remotely controlled.
5 October 2020
Since Publishing this Post,
I have had a great many views and reads,
almost every single day.
and, I am thrilled, because I love to share. I have no idea whether a popular site has linked to this page for history purposes, or it is being used in a class as an example. Bottom line, I write for myself to remember, but I love to share my learning and experiences. If your interests are in various styles of candle sticks and candelabra, I have another page with the 134 “FLICKERING FLAMES” in my home, along with the 9 battery operated remote control “Candles in the Windows” that you see above.
I invite you to visit, read, and view 134 FLICKERING FLAMES – A TWO YEAR REDUX – 3 DECEMBER 2019, which is an update of a previous story which is included with this post.
Enjoy, thank you, RAY
This was very interesting and informative. I was looking for the meaning of putting candles in windows because I wanted to decorate our home with them since I always liked how they looked. Now I know the meaning behind it. Thank you.
Thank you for the article, and to answer your question . . . the source directing your readers here is simply a web search for “candles in the windows”. You are the first listing. : )
Thank you so much for your comment. I recently was checking and found that I am “amazingly” the number one hit on Google for people wanting to learn about the background to the history about candles in a window. I love to write and share, and am very pleased that I have provided some information to so many people. Happy Holidays, yours, RAY
I love the look of candles in my windows. I wish it was not just a Christmas tradition to do.
It doesn’t have to be just a Christmas tradition for you, you can use it and make your own tradition and share with your loved one the beginnings of your own.
I have a lit candle (battery) in all my windows year round!! My neighbor and her friend down the street did it and both have since passed away. I am keeping up with there tradition. Been doing this for several years! I’ve never received any questions or feed back from anyone. But I’m gonna keep doing it!
I do it year round in NC the home of Fort Bragg. Being a Veteran Family we do it out of respect. The come on at night battery operated and stay on 8 hours and then turn off.
I love the stories and comments posted! Does anyone know if there are any related to the rainbow row or Charleston, South Carolina. If so I would love to hear about them.
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This was very interesting. While visiting a candle makers shop I noticed candles lit in the old farmhouse in the middle of summer. I commentedntomhisnwife how unloved the candles and what did she have them because it wasn’t Christmas and did it mean anything. She said very softly ,” It means the light of Christ is in my heart”. How simple and beautiful I remember and so I returned home and found candles to put in my windows to remind me to always keep the light of Christmas my heart and when someone comments on the candles I repeat the story.
He is always our light. I have had candles in my windows since for the past 23 years!