Why Do Pennsylvanians Put Candles in Their Windows? Uncovering the Tradition’s Hidden Meanings

The Tradition of Putting Candles in Windows in Pennsylvania

Have you ever wondered why many Pennsylvanians put candles in their windows during the holiday season? This tradition, commonly associated with Christmas decorations, dates back to colonial times and is still practiced today during Christmastime. It is believed that the candles were lit to guide the spirits of Irish Catholics to their homes during the holidays.

Pennsylvania, along with other New England parts, has a rich history of candle-making and lighting. In the 18th century, it was common for people to place lit candles in their windows as a sign of hospitality and welcome to travelers passing by. This practice also served as a symbol of warmth and safety during cold winter nights, making it an Irish tradition that is still popular during Christmas time. Additionally, lit candles were often used as Christmas decorations, adding to the festive Christmas tradition of the region.

Today, during Christmas time, the tradition of lighting candles in windows has evolved into a way for Pennsylvania families to celebrate their heritage and share their culture with others on Christmas Eve. Many families continue to light candles in their windows during Christmastime as a reminder of the state’s history and traditions, and to bring warmth and light to their family gatherings.

The importance of candles in this tradition during Christmastime cannot be overstated. They represent hope, peace, and unity among communities and serve as a beacon of light that shines through even the darkest nights. These candles are not just objects but are believed to connect with the spirits of different cultures. The priest plays a significant role in this tradition by leading the community in lighting the candles and spreading the message of love and togetherness.

Historical Origins and Evolution of the Tradition

European Roots of the Tradition

The tradition of placing candles in windows dates back to medieval Europe. During this time, people used to light candles to guide travelers and pilgrims who were traveling at night. The practice was particularly common during the Christmas season when many people would travel long distances to attend church services. In Ireland, the tradition is still alive, where candles are lit in windows to welcome spirits during Halloween. Additionally, Irish homes often have a hearth, where candles are placed as a symbol of warmth and hospitality.

Arrival and Spread of the Practice to Pennsylvania

When Europeans started immigrating to America, they brought this tradition with them. In Pennsylvania, this practice became particularly popular among German settlers who arrived in the 17th century. These settlers believed that lighting candles in their windows would help guide Christkindl (Christ Child) on his way, who would bring gifts for children on Christmas Eve. Today, this tradition is still celebrated by many Irish families in America, especially those with roots in Ireland. They often share posts on social media about their candle-lit windows during the holidays.

Over time, other families in PA also adopted this Christmas Eve candle burning practice. Today, it is still a well-known family holiday tradition throughout the state.

Changes in Materials Used for Candles Over Time

Initially, it was a common practice to use simple tallow candles made from animal fat or beeswax for lighting windows in Irish tradition. However, over time, these materials became more expensive and less practical for posts in certain location.

Today, most Irish people use electric lights instead of traditional candles on Christmas Eve. These lights are safer and easier to use than traditional candles but still maintain the same spirit of the original tradition. Some even post their festive location on social media to share the joy of the season.

Influence on Other Cultures and Traditions

The Irish tradition of placing candles in windows during Christmas has been posted several times, and its reputation has influenced other cultures and traditions around the world.

  • In Irish tradition, it is customary to place a candle in a window on Christmas Eve as a symbol of welcome. Many Irish households still practice this ritual and often post pictures of their lit candles on social media. This tradition has stood the test of times and has gained a reputation as a heartwarming gesture of hospitality.
  • In Sweden: People place electric lights or paper stars in their windows during Advent. Some also opt for candle burning, while others prefer using a candle switch. Interestingly, this tradition is somewhat similar to the Irish practice of placing candles in their windows during Christmas time.
  • In Mexico: People light luminarias (candles inside paper bags) along sidewalks and streets during Las Posadas processions. No Irish traditions are observed during this event.

Cultural and Religious Significance of the Tradition

Connection to Christianity

The tradition of putting candles in windows has a strong connection to Christianity, particularly Irish Catholics. The practice dates back to the 17th century when Irish Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith openly. To show solidarity with their fellow Catholics, they would place lit candles in their windows as a sign that it was safe for priests to come and perform mass.

Role in Celebrating Holidays and Festivals

Putting candles in windows is also an important part of celebrating holidays and festivals. In Irish tradition, during the feast of Samhain (which later became Halloween), families would light candles in their windows to help guide the spirits of their ancestors home. This Irish tradition eventually spread throughout Europe and North America.

In Pennsylvania, many Irish people still light candles in their windows during the holiday season. This tradition is said to have started with German immigrants who brought over the custom of lighting advent wreaths. The wreaths would be placed on tables or hung from ceilings, but eventually, they started placing them on windowsills so that they could be seen from outside.

Symbolism Behind Lighting Candles

Lighting candles has long been a symbol of hope and faith. In many cultures, lighting a candle represents bringing light into darkness or illuminating a path forward. For Irish Christians specifically, lighting candles can represent Jesus as the “light of the world.”

For Irish Pennsylvanians who put candles in their windows during Christmas time, it is often seen as a way to welcome visitors or even symbolize welcoming Jesus into their homes.

Reflection on Community Values

Putting candles in windows can also be seen as a reflection on Irish community values. By lighting up your window at night, you are showing that you are part of the Irish community and willing to help others find their way if needed.

In Pennsylvania Dutch and Irish communities, this idea is taken even further with “hex signs” painted on barns and homes. These colorful designs, often accompanied by a candle switch, are meant to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits, but they also serve as a way for neighbors to connect with each other and show their support.

Overall, the tradition of putting candles in windows has many meanings and has been passed down through generations of Irish families. Whether it’s a symbol of faith, hope, community, or simply a way to celebrate the holidays, this Irish tradition remains an important part of Pennsylvania culture today.

Symbolism Behind the Candle in the Window

Warmth, Safety, and Hospitality

Pennsylvania is a state that values hospitality and warmth. This is why it’s common to see window candles in many Irish homes throughout the state. The candle symbolizes a warm welcome to anyone who passes by or visits the house. It also serves as a reminder of safety and security for those inside.

Window candles are often lit during the holiday season, but they can be used all year round as decoration to add warmth and charm to any Irish home. They create a cozy atmosphere that makes everyone feel welcome, especially in an Irish setting.

Reminder of Historical Events

The tradition of placing candles in windows has been around for centuries. In Pennsylvania, it dates back to colonial times when people would use candles to light their homes at night. During this time, there were no streetlights or electricity, so having a candle burning in your window was necessary for safety reasons. Interestingly, the Irish also have a similar tradition of placing candles in their windows during Christmas.

The practice continued through the Civil War era when Irish families would also place candles in their windows to signal that their home was safe for runaway slaves seeking refuge on the Underground Railroad.

Today, many Pennsylvanians, including those of Irish descent, still light candles in their windows as a way to honor these historical events and show respect for those who fought for freedom.

Use as a Beacon for Travelers

In addition to serving as a symbol of warmth and safety, window candles have also been used as beacons for travelers in rural Irish areas where there are few streetlights or landmarks, seeing a flickering candle in the distance can help guide someone home.

This Irish tradition continues today with many bed and breakfasts and other lodging establishments placing electric window candles in guest rooms or public areas. These lights not only provide comfort but also serve as an easy-to-spot marker if guests need help finding their way back after dark.

Expression of Faith or Spirituality

For some Irish Pennsylvanians, lighting a candle in their window is an expression of faith or spirituality. In the Christian tradition, candles are often lit to represent the light of Christ and to symbolize hope and peace.

For others, lighting a candle in their window is a way to remember a loved one who has passed away. The candle serves as a reminder that even though they may be gone, they will always be remembered and cherished.

The Role of Candles in Pennsylvania Dutch Culture

Traditional use during Christmas season

Pennsylvania Dutch culture is known for its rich traditions, especially during the Christmas season. One of the most prominent traditions is the use of candles in windows. This tradition dates back to colonial times when candles were used to light homes during power outages. However, over time, this practice evolved into a symbol of hospitality and welcoming.

During Christmas season, many Pennsylvanian households place white candles in their windows as a way to welcome visitors and show that they are open to guests. The flickering light from these candles is said to represent hope and guidance for travelers who may be lost or seeking refuge.

Incorporation into daily life practices

Beyond the Christmas season, candles continue to play an important role in Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Many households still incorporate them into their daily life practices. For example, some families will light a candle at dinner time as a way to bring everyone together and create a sense of warmth and intimacy.

Candles are also used during religious ceremonies such as baptisms and weddings. In these instances, they serve as a symbol of purity and new beginnings.

Importance in Amish communities

Candles hold particular importance within Amish communities. Because these communities often live off-grid without access to electricity, candles are relied upon for lighting purposes. Because Amish people value simplicity and humility, they often make their own candles using natural materials like beeswax.

Beyond their practical uses, candles also play an important role in Amish worship services. During church services, candles are lit on the altar as a way to signify God’s presence among his people.

Connection to folk art and crafts

Finally, it’s worth noting that candles have played an important role in Pennsylvania Dutch folk art and crafts for centuries. Candle-making was once considered an essential skill that every household needed to know how to do themselves.

Today, many Pennsylvania Dutch artisans continue to create beautiful and intricate candle designs using traditional methods. These candles are often used as decorative pieces in homes or given as gifts during special occasions.

Use of Candles to Welcome Travelers and as a Sign of Sanctuary

Pennsylvania is known for its rich history, and one of the lesser-known traditions that have been passed down through generations is the practice of placing candles in windows. While it may seem like a simple decoration, this tradition holds deeper meaning and significance.

Historical Significance During Times of War

During times of war, the use of candles in windows served as a beacon for travelers passing through. In the 18th century, Pennsylvania was a colony with many people traveling long distances by foot or horseback. The candle in the window was a way to signal to travelers that they were welcome to stop at that house for shelter, food, and rest.

This tradition continued during the Civil War when Pennsylvania became an important battleground. Candles were used as a sign of sanctuary for wounded soldiers who needed help and refuge. The candles acted as guides for those who were lost or disoriented on their journey.

Practice Among Quakers, Mennonites, and Other Religious Groups

The use of candles in windows also has religious significance among certain groups such as Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish communities. For these groups, the candle represents warmth and hospitality towards neighbors and strangers alike.

In some cases, these communities would place candles in their windows during church services so that anyone who needed assistance could find them easily. This practice was especially important during harsh winters when people could easily get lost or stranded in the woods.

Contemporary Use as a Symbol for Inclusion

Today, placing candles in windows has taken on new meaning beyond just welcoming travelers or offering sanctuary. It has become a symbol for inclusion and acceptance towards all people regardless of race or religion.

Many Pennsylvanians continue this tradition by placing electric candles in their windows during holidays such as Christmas or Hanukkah. It serves not only as decoration but also as a reminder that everyone is welcome and safe in their homes.

Association with Peacekeeping Efforts

The tradition of placing candles in windows has also been associated with peacekeeping efforts. During the Vietnam War, a group called “Candlelight Peace Vigils” began to form across the country. These vigils involved lighting candles in windows as a sign of peaceful protest against the war.

This tradition continued during other conflicts such as the Gulf War and the Iraq War. The use of candles in windows became a way for people to express their desire for peace and an end to violence.

The Tradition’s Connection to Christmas Celebrations

Advent wreaths and calendars

Pennsylvanians have a rich history of celebrating Christmas, with various traditions passed down from generations. One such tradition is the use of Advent wreaths and calendars. These are used during the four weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, representing the anticipation and preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ. The wreath typically consists of four candles, each lit on consecutive Sundays, while the calendar has small doors that open to reveal a treat or message for each day leading up to Christmas.

Lighting ceremonies at churches

Another way Pennsylvanians celebrate Christmastime is through lighting ceremonies at churches. Many churches hold special services where they light candles or turn on their holiday lights in celebration of the season. This tradition dates back centuries and symbolizes hope, peace, joy, and love – all values associated with Christmas.

Symbolic representation within Nativity scenes

The Holy Family’s journey to Bethlehem is an essential part of the Christmas story. In Pennsylvania, it’s common to see Nativity scenes displayed prominently in homes and public spaces during December. Candles are often placed near these displays as a symbolic representation of guiding light for Mary and Joseph on their journey towards Bethlehem.

Incorporation into holiday decorations

Candles play a significant role in Pennsylvania’s holiday decorations. From window sills to mantelpieces, you’ll find candles adorning many homes during Christmastime. Placing candles in windows is particularly popular because it represents hospitality – welcoming friends and family into your home during this festive season.

Continued Relevance of the Tradition in Modern Times

In conclusion, the tradition of putting candles in windows has a rich history and cultural significance that continues to be relevant today. The symbolism behind the candle in the window as a sign of sanctuary and welcome for travelers is still practiced in many parts of Pennsylvania. The use of candles during Christmas celebrations further highlights the importance of this tradition.

If you are interested in learning more about Pennsylvania Dutch culture or want to incorporate this tradition into your own home, consider purchasing authentic handmade candles from local artisans or attending cultural events that showcase this unique heritage.


Q: Is there a specific type of candle used for this tradition?

A: While any candle can be used, traditionally white or beeswax candles were preferred due to their association with purity and simplicity.

Q: What is the origin story behind this tradition?

The exact origin story is unclear, but it is believed to have originated from European customs brought over by early settlers. It evolved into a way to signal safe haven during times of war and unrest, often using candle switch to communicate the message.

Q: Do people still practice this tradition outside of Pennsylvania?

A: While it may not be as widespread, variations of this tradition can be found throughout different regions and cultures around the world.

Q: How has modern technology impacted this tradition?

A: While electric lights may have replaced candles for practicality reasons, many still choose to use traditional candles for their symbolic value and connection to history.

Q: Are there any safety concerns associated with leaving a candle burning unattended?

A: Yes, it is important to exercise caution when using open flames. Consider using flameless LED candles if you are worried about safety risks.