Candle Traditions Around the World22. Jul 2015
We’ve already talked about the history of lighting and blowing out a candle on one’s birthday (see our post “Why Do We Blow Out Candles to Celebrate Birthdays?”), but what about the other times candles are used? We did a little research and found that candles have played an important role in many diverse cultures ever since they were first invented by the Romans in 500 BC. And, despite the various uses and traditions, there seems to be one guiding theme that drives the ritual usage of candles: that of life and human connection.
Many religions celebrate major observances during the month of December, and the lighting of candles plays a great role in a variety of traditions. Hanukkah is known as the “feast of lights” so there is no surprise that lit candles are vital parts of this Jewish tradition (most prominently in the lighting, one day at a time, of the eight candles of the menorah). The Christian tradition of Christmas sees the lighting of the “Christ Candle” as a central part of Christmas Eve ceremonies. For Kwanzaa, a kinara is used to hold seven candles – three red, one black and three green.
Offerings to Gods and Deities
Light has always played a role in religious belief, with sacred fire being an important offering to the gods. The ancient Romans in particular lit candles in their temples and spiritual spaces. The lighting of candles before a shrine as a show of respect is also common in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In types of Christianity, votive candles are often used in this way and are also lit to represent prayer intentions.
Unity and Marriage
Lighting a “unity” candle has become an increasingly popular part of wedding ceremonies, with brides and grooms, both religious and secular, finding great meaning in this act. Typically, the bride lights one candle and the groom the other, and together they will light a third candle using the flames from their own.
Candle in a Window
The act of placing a candle in a window dates back to colonial times in the United States. Evoking familial warmth, people would place a candle in view of people outside the home as a beacon of good hope and a welcome to weary travellers. When family members were away, the candle could also represent the family calling their loved one back home.
Funerals and Vigils
The custom of lighting a candle as a response to a loved one’s death comes out of the ancient belief that this would help prevent demons from seizing the soul of the deceased. Today, candlelit vigils are powerful ways of bringing people together in mourning and remembrance.
One may think that dance and candles shouldn’t mix, but the classical Egyptian belly dance style raqs sharqi finds a way to safely bring the two together as the dancer holds a candle either in her hand or on her head.
Given what we know today about the ways that ambient room conditions like temperature and air flow can affect the burning of a candle, we would never use a candle to try and keep accurate time. However, the medieval Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great did just that, using a series of four-hour “candle-clocks” to keep track of the passing hours.