Keep A Candle In Your Window

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared”.


All the 54 years of her married life, every Christmas Eve, up until her death in 1969, Eliza-Jane, my grandmother, placed two candles in the window of our single-story home. She claimed that this tradition, gave a sign of welcome to all who passed our gate, and an invitation to come inside and share our fire.

A wooden slide bolt, on the back of our heavy door, remained pulled back, thus allowing any traveller who “passed the road” to enter, should they arrive after our family had retired to bed.

Should those travellers of course be named Mary and Joseph, then it was better not to advertise that a baby could be in their company. After all, according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, (Chapter 2 – Verse 7), King Herod; fearing the prophesy handed down in the Old Testament, [Latter found in Isaiah Chapter 9: Verses 6 & 7 ] [Same foretold of the coming of a “Prince of Peace”, whose government would be endless.], had called the three Magi [Named Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa], secretly and had sent them to Bethlehem, saying: “Go, search carefully for the Child, and when you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.” King Herod’s intentions were far from wanting to worship this new born Prince, as we read later and realising this also, the three astute Magi returned home by a different route, to avoid him.

Candle traditions of course change from district to district. Here in the province of Munster, most families lit just one candle; its purpose simply to offer light along the way for Mary and Joseph; on their way to find that stable in Bethlehem. The candle was traditionally lit by the youngest girl in the house, who would also be called upon to extinguish same on Christmas morning.

A house without a candle was seen as unwelcoming, as per the innkeeper who had refused a room to the same Joseph and Mary. In the years prior to and since the Great Famine (1845 – 1849), as emigration left so many Irish families missing a loved one at Christmas, the candle came to be seen more and more as a sign of welcome to those able to afford a visit home.

Another explanation for the lighting of candles in a window at Christmas time, dates back to the time of Na Péindlíthe, (English: Penal Laws). Same period saw the introduction of a series of laws imposed, solely, in an attempt to force Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept an established Church of Ireland or Protestant faith. Begun in the early 1600’s, practicing Catholicism became outlawed, with priests often forced into hiding, in order to defy the British government’s order that they cease performing Mass and other Sacraments.

According to the Dublin born statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, the Penal Laws were, “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

However, these laws did little to convert the faith of Irish Roman Catholics. Lit candles on Christmas Eve became a sign that a family was of the Roman Catholic faith and thus candles became an open invitation to any passing priest to come inside and say Mass with the family at Christmas. This feigned welcome for the Holy Family now became an explanation or cover story, used by households when British officialdom queried this “lit – candle” practice during these penal times.


1 comment to Keep A Candle In Your Window

  • Katie

    George I hope you don’t mind. I printed out 6 copies of this beautiful story. One gone to Canada, One gone to an Irish lady in Melbourne. She told me she heard one of the Irish men on the Irish radio talking about this. But it was new to her. She comes from Roscrea. The other copies I am taking to the senior Christmas Dinner wont that be fun. I am sure some of the Irish seniors will be so happy with this story. George at least you will bring a bit of the old Irish Christmas Tradition to them. George Australia is getting further and further away of the old traditions of Christmas. No nativity displays in any of the shopping centres this year. And doing away with father Christmas is terrible for the young. All Christmas is about here now is presents and holidays. Its so sad. We still have terrible high temperatures. We are praying for rain or better still some lovely snow.

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