Placing lit candles in the windows arises from the British persecution against the Catholic Church in Ireland. Since the time King Henry II invaded Ireland in 1171, persecution against the Irish has existed. This persecution increased tremendously in the wake of the Protestant movement, especially under Elizabeth I and then Oliver Cromwell.
The logic was simply this: the British conquerors were Protestant and the Irish people were Catholic; therefore, to totally subjugate the Irish people, the British had to crush their religion, and that meant crushing the Catholic Church.
This persecution was formalized and legalized in what were known as the Penal Laws. Political philosopher Edmund Burke wrote (in a Letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe):
All the penal laws of that unparalleled code of oppression were manifestly the effects of national hatred and scorn toward a conquered people whom the victors delighted to trample upon and were not at all afraid to provoke. They were not the effect of their fears, but of their security…whilst that temper prevailed, and it prevailed in all its force to a time within our memory, every measure was pleasing and popular just in proportion as it tended to harass and ruin a set of people who were looked upon as enemies of God and man; indeed, as a race of savages, who were a disgrace to human nature itself.
With the rise of William and Mary, the penal laws were perfected. The penal laws, which were designed to eradicate Catholicism by making the practice of the faith too burdensome, included the following: All Catholic clergy were ordered to leave the country by May 1, 1698; if after that date they were found remaining, they would be imprisoned and then exiled; and if they returned they would be liable to being hanged until unconscious, drawn (disemboweled while alive), and quartered (beheaded and cut into four pieces). Catholics were forbidden to practice the faith, attend Mass, receive an education, send a child to a Catholic teacher, send a child to a Catholic school abroad, hold public office, engage in commerce, live in a corporate town, purchase or lease land, vote or hold arms for protection. Punishments for violations included confiscation of goods, fines, imprisonment, exile and even death. Burke commented in his Tract on the Popery Code: “There was not a single right of nature or benefit of society which had not been either totally taken away or considerably impaired.” Even Chief Justice Robinson, during the reign of George I stated, “The law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.”
Despite this persecution, the Catholic faith kept the Irish strong. Bishops and priests continued to minister to the people, traveling circuits and offering Mass on “Mass rocks” in open fields. Hiding behind hedges, which provided easy look-out and escape, schoolmasters continued to teach the children, not just regular studies, but the faith and Irish heritage; they were thereby given the name “Hedge Schoolmasters.” And so the Irish people held true to their faith and culture.
With this in mind, we find the use of candles in the windows. During Christmas, every faithful Irish Catholic family hoped to have a priest visit their home so that they could receive the sacraments and in return offer him hospitality. So they would leave their doors unlocked and place candles in the windows to signal a priest that he was welcome and would be safe. Sometimes, a single candle would appear in several windows, or three candles in one window, one each representing Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Of course the British persecutors became suspicious and asked the purpose of this action. So the faithful Irish Catholics responded, “Our doors are unlocked and candles burn in our windows at Christmas, so that our Blessed Mother Mary, St. Joseph and Baby Jesus, looking for a place to lodge, will find their way to our homes and be welcomed with open hearts.” Of course, the British considered such a display another sign of superstition and “silly popery.”
Here is the origin of this custom, still cherished by the Irish. Of course, this custom of placing candles in the windows was brought to America by the Irish immigrants and has since become very popular. However, we must never lose sight of its meaning and historical background. As we celebrate Christmas, may we also open our hearts and homes to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Christ is our light, who entered this world to scatter sin and darkness. Having been enlightened by Christ through Holy Baptism, we must have a strong loyalty to our Church. We too must realize that the greatest gift of all is our faith, a faith which enabled the Irish to triumph over the most heinous persecutions.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)