Candle lighting around Christmas time began with the ancient Romans. During the winter solstice, they held midwinter festivals to celebrate the return of the sun. Placing a candle in the window as a Christmas symbol, however, seems to be an Irish tradition. As early as the 16th and 17th centuries, devout Irish Catholics began the practice of placing large, usually red, candles in the windows of their homes on Christmas Eve. As Irish immigrants moved to Colonial America, the practice of placing candles in the windows of their homes during the Christmas season continued. The number of candles was often limited, due to the high cost of candles imported from England.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, penal laws were passed in Britain and Ireland prohibiting the practice of Catholicism. Laws were enforced as late as the 18th and 19th centuries, prohibiting Catholics from many civil liberties and religious freedoms and forcing them to find ways to practice their faith secretly. For devoted Irish Catholics, candles in windows on Christmas Eve signified safety and welcome to passing priests and permission for Christmas Mass to be celebrated in their homes. In Colonial America, Christmas candles placed in the window were a sign of welcome to travelers and a symbol of the warmth of home during the holidays.
Burning a candle in the window became a tradition in the United States early on in the country’s history. Placing a lit candle in the window symbolizes a family member or loved one that is away from home. A burning candle showed that the family was praying for the safety and protection of the person they missed. This custom is still practiced in many parts of the United States today.
Today, placing a large pillar candle in the window at Christmastime and burning it on Christmas Eve symbolizes Christ as the “Light of the World,” or the star of Bethlehem. Placing a candle in each window around Christmastime is considered a symbol of friendship.