Irish Christmas decorations are similar to those in the USA, but not exactly the same. While some enjoy the lights around the window, most houses seem to prefer a few larger light-up decorations. Signs pleading ‘Santa please stop here!’ and images of the jolly man himself are always popular, but one image stands out for its enduring popularity and variety of designs – the image of a candle or a trio of candles. From low key but elegant wooden holders with real candles to brightly colored huge window decorations, the candle in the window is seen in homes throughout the island. But what does it mean?
Some Catholic scholars trace the image of light back to Christianity’s roots in Judaism and Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights in December. That only explains why we use lights to decorate, but what about candles specifically? There are two main theories about why the Irish have traditionally put candles with their bright flames in the window, and they are not mutually exclusive.
The most popular tradition is that the candle in the window represents welcome – the cead mile failte that is nearly Ireland’s trademark. Further back in history, it was said to welcome the Holy Family and a house without a candle was seen as unwelcoming as the innkeeper who refused Joseph and Mary a room. Three candles were used to represent Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus, and the door was left unlocked to let them in should they arrive after the family was asleep. In the years since the Famine, as emigration left so many families missing a loved one at Christmas, the candle came to be seen more and more as a sign of welcome to those visiting home. Today, the president’s residence, Aras an Uachtarain, puts a candle in the window to express welcome to returning emigrants. It is also seen more broadly as a welcome to any traveler who needs a place to rest for the night, although today it isn’t meant to be taken literally!
The other historical explanation for the lit candle in the window dates back to the Penal Laws, when practicing Catholicism was outlawed and priests went into hiding to defy the British government’s order that they cease performing the mass and other sacraments. The laws did nothing to change the people’s faith, but they did force some creativity in how it was practiced. One or three lit candles were a sign that the family was Catholic and an invitation to any passing priest to come and say mass with the family. Despite the harsh laws, Irish Catholics yearned to have a priest come and say mass in their home, especially at Christmas.
We can’t be sure which of these reasons came first, although some claimed the welcome for the Holy Family was a cover story used when British officials questioned the practice during the penal times. What we do know is that Ireland really has about a hundred million different ways to say welcome.