The Celtic Christmas candle tradition

Growing up in Ireland, it was a common sight to see a single candle placed in the window of homes throughout the Christmas season. This tradition has spread across the world and yet many people have forgotten the rich meaning and symbolism behind it. Where does it come from and what does it mean?

The single lit candle placed in the window symbolized a time when the Irish were heavily persecuted and oppressed for their faith. During the era of what was known as the Penal Laws, it was forbidden for Catholics to gather publicly for prayer and the public practice of Mass was outlawed. The goal of the Penal Laws was the repression of the Irish people especially through their faith traditions.

However, during this time, the Irish found ways to secretly practice their faith without drawing the negative attention of the authorities. For example, a specific rosary was developed during this time called the “Penal Rosary.” Consisting of a single decade with an elongated crucifix, the rosary could easily be concealed up the sleeve of the man or woman who dared to carry it.

During the time of the Penal Laws, priests moved from village to village under the cover of darkness to avoid being arrested and “safe houses” were designated as places where priests could rest and offer Mass before moving on again. One of the traditions that has lived on from this time is the placing of a Christmas candle in the window.

On Christmas Eve, a single lit candle was placed in the window of a home that was easily visible to wandering priests. Traditionally, the candle was lit by the youngest person in the family and had to be extinguished by a child named Mary. At its heart, the candle was a beacon of hope and hospitality indicating a home that was welcoming of all strangers, but particularly priests who wandered the highways and byways of Ireland.

Any family that wished to welcome a priest safely into their home and avail of the sacraments would place a single lit candle in the window and leave the door unlatched. If the family was questioned about the practice by the English authorities, they would explain that the candle was a symbol of their welcome to Joseph and Mary as they wandered on Christmas Eve looking for a place to rest and give birth to the baby Jesus.

This is a simple but meaningful tradition that reminds us of the importance of not being afraid to practice our faith and to be a sign of light in the world. And while the era of the Penal Laws has passed, today there are many Christians throughout the world who are heavily persecuted for their faith. According to Open Doors USA, which monitors Christian persecution throughout the world, the top three countries for Christian persecution are:

  • North Korea, where Christians are routinely imprisoned and confined in labor camps.
  • Somalia. The Catholic bishop of Mogadishu has described it as impossible to be a Christian in Somalia.
  • Afghanistan, where the government of this Muslim country refuses to recognize any of its citizens as Christian.

On Christmas Eve, I would encourage you to take up this tradition of the candle in the window to remember those who are persecuted for their faith but also those who have abandoned the practice of faith. May your home be a light to welcome and inspire others to grow in love and the practice of faith. As you light the candle, pray this simple prayer:

May your Christmas be filled with the light of the Son,

From whom comes our salvation, over darkness He’s won,

May the light of Jesus radiate from your heart, warm and pure,

To family and friends but especially the poor.

May the candle in your window be a light at the inn

Of your hearth, heart and home, to stranger and kin. Amen.

Stanz is director of Discipleship and Leadership Development for the Diocese of Green Bay.