A candle in the window is a tradition that pre-dates Colonial times, although it became a common practice during this period. The traditions of holidays and life events guide placing a candle in the window to serve as a beacon or remembrance.
What Does It Mean to Put a Candle in the Window?
The practice of many colonial families was to put a candle in the window whenever a family member was away. This might have been a long journey with no set time for their loved one's return. Communication was mostly by letter and messengers. Transportation wasn't always reliable. These two factors made it difficult to know a person's whereabouts, much less when they would return home.
Guiding Beacon Home With a Candle in the Window
A candle would be placed in the window to provide a beacon, especially during inclement weather, so the family member could find their way home. Another reason for placing a candle in the window was to send the message that the traveling family member was remembered. The sentiment that the burning candle flame sent was that the person was loved, missed, and held in the family's thoughts and prayers during their absence.
Welcome to Travelers With a Candle in the Window
Many colonial homes sat on large tracts of land with neighbors at significant distances. A candle was put in the window as a welcome mat to travelers. This was especially true of boarding houses and way stations for stagecoaches and commonly traveled routes. When a traveler saw a candle burning in a window, they were confident they would be welcomed with a meal and a place to stay for the night. Anyone traveling through their neighbor's property knew they could stop by for a meal, chat, or visit whenever there was a burning candle in the window.
Various Traditions of Putting a Candle in the Window
Besides placing a candle in the window for weary travelers or absent family members, a candle was often a symbol of remembrance. During certain times, a candle was put in the window in remembrance of a deceased family member who wouldn't be coming home.
Candle in the Window for the Dead
In Scottish, Gaelic, and Irish households, a candle in the window is part of a celebration that invites the spirits of dead relatives back home. There are two distinct celebrations. One is a pagan holiday, while the other is a Catholic Church holiday.
Celebration of Samhain
The Scottish/Gaelic celebration, known as Samhain or Saven, marked the end of the harvest season. It was a common practice to share the bounty of the harvest with a feast. As part of the feast and celebration, bonfires were lit at sunset and fueled until sunrise. These fires were beacons seen from hill to hill as protection to ward off evil spirits believed to roam the world on the eve of Samhain.
It was believed that on the night of Samhain, the veil between the living world and the world of the dead was thin enough for spirits to cross over into the living world. Families, longing to see loved ones, invited their spirits to join the feast by lighting a candle in the window. An empty seat was left at the table and a place was set for the spirit to join in the harvest feast.
Pagan Holidays Became Church Holidays
As with many pagan holidays, the Church incorporated Samhain as All Hallows' Eve, also known as All Saints' Day. This mirroring of pagan holidays was a way to make Christianity more acceptable to the population. In modern times, this holiday is also known as Halloween.
Candle in the Window Ireland Traditions
In Ireland, the celebration of All Souls' Day has a similar tradition of lighting a candle and placing it in the window to guide the spirits of loved ones back home. Another Irish tradition sets a burning candle in the window during Christmas. The burning candle symbolizes a home that welcomes the traveling Holy family, Mary and Joseph, in search of shelter on Christmas Eve when Jesus was born.
The practice of placing candles in the windows continues today, albeit not with open flame, but electric candles. Window candles are considered iconic Christmas decorations for families celebrating the Holy season.
Why Do Amish Put Candles in Windows?
The Amish put candles in windows, too. This tradition is like that of the Irish. The Amish light the candles in their windows as part of their celebration and recognition of the Holy night of Christmas Eve when Jesus was born.
Candle in the Window for Soldiers
During the American Revolutionary War, whenever a soldier went to war, the family he left behind would light a candle in the window every night he was gone. The candle remained burning until he returned. Many families, who lost their loved ones to the war, continued to light the candle in the window in remembrance of the soldier who would never be coming back home.
Candle in the Window Civil War
During the American Civil War, it was common practice to put a candle in the window for those fighting in the war. Again, this was a continuation of the same practice observed during the American Revolutionary War and the wars that followed.
History of Putting a Candle in the Window
There are many traditions that span several centuries of putting a candle in the window. The main purpose of the candle in the window is one of remembrance of the absent loved one.