We should realize that lighting candles is a custom of many religions for many different reasons. The lighting of candles among other things, signifies love, prayer, passion and hope. One source I read said that Christians see candles as ‘Christ’s Light’ and suggested that the lighting of candles on Christmas Eve comes from the Jewish ‘Feast of Lights’ or Hanukkah. Of course this fact should neither surprise us nor discourage our usage of candles, after all, as Christians, as believers in Jesus we are the true children of Abraham and thus the true Israel.
Another source I read said that since earliest times, candles have symbolized the triumph of light over darkness, warmth over cold, community over isolation. It went on to say that Ancient Romans lit candles as a defense against evil and to entreat the sun to shine. During Victorian times candles represented goodwill to folks who were down on their luck during the holiday season. In many cultures throughout history people placed candles in their windows to welcome passing strangers into their homes where they could find food and a roof over their heads for the night.
On the negatives side, I read that some cultures have bestowed supernatural powers upon candles, believing that they could predict tragic events. In England, instead of a Yule log, families would burn large candles on Christmas Day. If the candle went out before the day’s end, it was believed that those who lived in the household would have misfortune for the coming year, I would suppose a larger candle might be in the plans for the next year. In Scotland, people believed that the Christmas candle dying before Midnight meant the coming of a great disaster. Danish families often lit a candle to symbolize the wife of the household and another to symbolize the husband; the first candle to burn out would foretell which one of them would be the first to die. In Scandinavian countries, families would leave candles on the graves of their ancestors, most likely because of the old Viking belief that during the winter solstice the dead rose to haunt the living. Certainly we know that there is no scientific evidence, nor any other evidence proving the ability of candles to tell the future. We do know that they bring a touch of warmth, light, and beauty into what might otherwise be a cold, dreary season.
As for the symbolism of candles around the world, we know that to Christians, candles symbolize Jesus, who brought light into the world, or rather, who is the Light of the world. I read that during the Middle Ages, people put candles in their windows to guide the Christ child, whom they believed wandered through the world in search of a place to stay; on that night no wayfarer was turned away. Candles also came to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the wise men to Jesus’ birthplace. During the Middle Ages people would light a large candle both at home and in church, and families during Victorian times used pins or melted wax to attach candles to Christmas tree branches. Candle holders didn’t come into use until 1890. In Spain, families light a candle above the door on Christmas Eve. In China, Christians adorn their Christmas trees with lanterns, and Christians in some parts of India use clay oil-burning lamps.
As for our modern world, last week we talked about the significance of the candles on the Advent Wreath and week before last we talked a little about the lights on the Christmas tree. Today we see, not only candles, but our modern equivalent, the light bulb, burning brightly at Christmas time. We do still see candles burning, but we see lights on houses, in windows, on trees, in the yard, on the roofs of house and so forth.
Might I suggests that just as in days past and just as in other cultures, much of the reason for the lighting of candles has remained the same for as many years. And even today, the reason for our modern electric candle, the decorating with lights is probably not all from altruistic reasons.
On the negative side, too often I see more houses today decorated with Halloween decorations or Easter bunny and Santa decorations than actual Christmas decorations. Our world has turned so inward that instead of looking outside ourselves to find our joy and peace, we look inward and seek to find joy and peace from this world and the things of this world, and then we wonder why we are so not at peace and not full of joy and happiness.
On the positive side, we do have Christians who decorate their houses for the purpose of drawing attention to the coming celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world. We see houses with a manger scene prominently displayed. We see houses with a star on top. We see Christmas trees with an angel or star on top. And periodically we see a Christmas tree with a nail hidden in the center near the trunk as a reminder of the reason for the Christmas tree. We may even see houses with a cross prominently displayed in the front.
The question we must always and continually ask ourselves is this, “Why do we do what we do?” and at this time of year, more specifically, “Why do we light candles?” Do we light candles as a part of our preparation, focusing our attention on the reason for the season, or do we simply light candles, put up lights and the like because that is what everyone is supposed to do this time of year?
Our modern world has made such advances in candles that now, not only do candles offer light, they also offer smell, thus scented candles might bring the scent of the pine or fir tree, or perhaps the scent of apple pie, cookies, cinnamon, or whatever other smell might remind one of their own Christmas as a child. Thus, for many the symbolism of the candle has all but vanished so that it is simply an esthetically pleasing sight and smell. And please do not misunderstand, I am not saying that any of this estheticism is bad, in and of itself, it is simply that for too many any symbolic meaning of the candles has been lost. Yet, even though much, if not all of the symbolism has been lost, so candles as well as modern lights can still serve the function of drawing one’s attention to meaning of the season, which perhaps is the goal in the first place.
Personally, we put up lights as a witness to our community of our Christian faith and our hope in the birth of the Messiah and in His second coming. We put up lights so as to draw attention to the fact of the coming celebration of the birth of the Christ at Christmas. As our Scripture reading reminds us, “14You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt. 5:14, 15). Now, certainly, not everything we do is for altruistic reasons, and I am sure God knows that, but I am also certain that God can and does work through our witness, our decorations, our lighting candles, not to give a false impression or lead others astray, but to be a light to the world and as an opportunity to give a witness of the hope that we have. My prayer is that our lighting candles might say, to God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.