Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, I place a candle in each street-facing window, an ancient symbol to welcome the Christ Child. Somehow, I had assumed the tradition arrived from Germany, just as the Christmas tree had come to England via Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria. My research revealed, however, that the custom began in Ireland following the Cromwellian era and for very different reasons — hospitality notwithstanding.
Back in the 17th-18th century (1691-1778), the British government targeted Roman Catholics in Ireland by enforcing Penal Laws. Priests were not allowed to practice their faith, certainly not to celebrate Mass. Many were forced to flee the country for France, or else go into hiding. Written stories and novels tell of country houses maintaining a “priests’ cellar” entered by a separate passageway. The single lighted candle in a front window indicated a Catholic household wherein a traveling priest could slip in safely to minister to the family. When the British occupation forces questioned the Irish about these candles, they had to make up a story about welcoming Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus.
Some Irish Catholics would light three candles, one for each member of the Holy Family, thus satisfying the British and allowing the families to practice their faith in secret. It also started the alternate legend that Mary and Joseph would reenact their search for a place to stay every Christmas Eve and would come to the home of a family that signaled its welcome to them with the candle.
Over time, the lighted candle tradition evolved as a beacon of hope for any strangers passing by on a dark winter evening. The lighted candle signaled the house as a place with warm food and shelter for travelers on roads where inns were few and homes were far apart. The custom spread to villages, as well, spreading a welcoming glow among neighborhoods.
Early settlers to the American colonies brought the tradition with them. Here, where religious freedom began on this continent, the candle in the window became a beacon of light and safety where visitors would find refuge in a new and sometimes wild land. Window lights were a signal to neighboring homes to welcome back visiting family members.
Today, Colonial Williamsburg is the epitome of a scene such as this. The house in the photo above reminds me of similar houses in the historic district of Apalachicola, Florida, where I visited during the Christmas season several years ago. A single candle shone in each window of every house, replicating this Southern tradition. I continue it in my own modern home although not all the windows line up like toy tin soldiers. Our dark nights, as well as numerous gloomy days, cry out for a welcoming light in each window.
Next week, when I decorate the house for Christmas, I’ll add sprigs of evergreens snipped from our Colorado spruce to the window sill that faces the front porch.