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.
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.