A writer friend of mine was researching Christmas traditions—in particular, the Irish convention of leaving a candle burning in a window on Christmas Eve. What was the story? We posed the question on Facebook.
All sorts of things were mentioned. For example, one Dubliner mentioned “the three dark days,” which require a candle for protection.
Another dates from the 1650s when the Cromwell-controlled British parliament issued a series of Penal Laws:
The Irish Catholic was forbidden the exercise of his religion.
He was forbidden to receive education.
He was forbidden to enter a profession.
He was forbidden to hold public office.
He was forbidden to engage in trade or commerce.
He was forbidden to live in a corporate town or within five miles thereof.
He was forbidden to own a horse of greater value than five pounds.
He was forbidden to purchase land.
He was forbidden to lease land.
He was forbidden to vote.
He was forbidden to keep any arms for his protection.
He was forbidden to hold a life annuity.
He could not be guardian to a child.
He could not himself educate his child.
Thus the candle in the window, during a time when Catholicism was banned, indicated that mass could be said in the home, or that mass was at that moment being said, or even that it was a home that would welcome a priest on the run, give him shelter and a warm meal.
After the Great Famine of the 1840s, many Irish burned a candle in the window at Christmas in remembrance of loved ones who’d died or gone abroad. It was meant to guide the loved ones home for Christmas. This is similar to a custom I grew up with of leaving the porchlight on on the night of Christmas Eve.
Many mentioned the custom was symbolic of welcoming Mary and Joseph into the home (because there was no room in the inn)—very similar to the private welcome of a priest who needed to remain anonymous. Dubliners of my generation and younger note things like this:
We always light a candle and put it in the window about 10 minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve and let it burn until about 10 minutes after midnight. It was always done in my parents’ house and we have carried it on. It is a symbol to the Holy Family that there is a welcome in the house. We repeat it again on New Year’s Eve while at the same time opening both the front and back door. This is to cast out the old year and welcome the new.
The youngest child in the home lit the candle—another tradition. Who’s to say where little conventions like this originate?
This article from some Bostonians of Irish heritage confirms the very things that came up in our conversation. Nothing new, but shows that the custom crossed the Atlantic and is still practiced here.
Merry Christmas, y’all. 🙂