Festivals of Lights & the importance of candles

Candles are an important part of a number of holiday celebrations. They are represented in both religious and nonreligious winter holidays.

People interpret their meaning in many different ways. Some associate candles with the Yuletide. The winter solstice celebrations date back for centuries. Celebrators think the warm glow of candles shows spring is on its way. Others view candles as a family’s guiding light. This comes from several ancient traditions. Christians equate candles with the guiding star of Bethlehem. Jews light a Hanukiah during Hanukkah. During Kwanzaa, the central symbol is a candelabra of special colored candles. 

Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights and it remembers the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in Israel. In 2020, Hanukkah will be from the evening of Thursday, 10th December until the evening of Friday, 18th December. During Hanukkah, on each of the eight nights, a candle is lit in a special menorah (candelabra) called a ‘hanukkiyah’. There is a special ninth candle called the ‘shammash’ or servant candle which is used to light the other candles. The shammash is often in the center of the other candles and has a higher position. On the first night one candle is lit, on the second night, two are lit until all are lit on the eighth and final night of the festival. 

For Advent, one candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, two are lit on the second Sunday and so on. Each candle has a different meaning in Christianity. Different churches have given them different meanings. Here is one interpretation:

  • The first represents Isaiah and other prophets in the Bible that predicted the coming of Jesus.
  • The second represents the Bible.
  • The third represents Mary, the mother of Jesus.
  • The fourth represents John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, who told the people in Israel to get ready for Jesus’ teaching.

Kwanzaa is an African-American cultural festival held from December 26 to January 1. Founded in 1966, Kwanzaa celebrates African-Americans and their ancestry. The central symbol of Kwanzaa is a candelabra called a kinara that holds one black, three red and three green candles. The candles are lighted in a particular order until the final day when all seven candles burn. Each candle has a special meaning – unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Also called the Festival of Lights, Diwali is Hinduism’s biggest holiday, drawing in huge crowds of happy revelers every fall. It is the celebration of the triumph of light over darkness and of good over evil. On the third night of the five-day celebration, participants dress to the nines and light up their homes with oil lamps and candles, offering up worship to the goddess Lakshmi. The holiday creates joy and a sense of community to participants around the globe.

Nordic countries have a long tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice. Today, on Dec. 13, many people in Sweden, Norway and parts of Finland celebrate St. Lucia Day, sometimes called St. Lucy’s Day, a traditional festival of lights.

How do candles used in your celebrations and traditions?

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