THE days are at their shortest in December, and the nights at their longest. So it’s no wonder that the sight of a lit candle is always cheering at this time of year.
I was reminded of this when watching my young grandson open the next window in his Advent calendar. As well as the eagerly awaited (and quickly devoured) piece of chocolate, there was a picture: a fat red candle burning brightly on a sill.
“Why do we have candles at Christmas, Grandma?” Jonathan asked.
We decided to look it up together.
The first thing we discovered was that the use of candles for festivals is certainly not limited to the Christian faith.
The five-day Hindu festival of Diwali is celebrated as autumn ends and winter begins. Houses are cleaned and decorated, best clothes are put on, and candles, lamps and lanterns are lit in celebration.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is also known as a festival of lights, and comes a little later in the year.
This time, nine candles are placed in a special candelabrum and lit one by one over a period of eight days.
It marks the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, when the only small jar of oil available miraculously kept the temple lamp lit.
Nordic countries often celebrate the winter solstice with candles. St Lucia’s Day is marked on December 13, when children parade through the streets wearing wreathes of lingonberry branches and carrying candles.
In Britain, we of course associate the use of candles with Christmas. We start with Advent candles, which are first lit on December 1, and burned down in small sections until the big day is reached.
My own particular favourite use of candles, however, comes in the Christingle service, often held close to Christmas Eve.
The service sees youngsters given the gift of an orange tied round with a red ribbon. The orange has a candle pushed into its centre, and is covered in skewers of sweets or dried fruits.
Jonathan, who’d taken part in such services, gleefully explained why.
“The orange,” he said, “is meant to be the world. The sweets and fruit are meant to be all the good things that the world gives us. The red ribbon is the blood of Christ, and the candle is Jesus being born. Bringing light into the world, you see?”
So Christmas candles are not just a cosy adjunct to a winter festival. They remind us of the time when light pierced the darkness so clearly and strongly that it has shone down through centuries ever since.
May it for ever bring us comfort and courage, lighting our path safely through the world. ■