One of the things I do around our home at Advent is put candles in our windows. They are the battery-powered variety of course, but they flicker in a realistic manner. Most people do not know the origin of this custom.
Even though the symbolism of lights during the winter solstice has ancient pre-Christian origins, this particular custom of window candles was brought to this country by Irish immigrants.
Irish Catholics put candles in their windows, and also kept their doors unlocked, at Christmastime as a sign to passing priests. It was a way of informing clergy that they were welcome to spend the night in that home and say Mass for the inhabitants. Today the Irish, as well as the Americans, have forgotten this centuries-old significance of the candles.
The custom also has biblical significance. It is said that on the first Christmas Eve Mary and Joseph went from house to house in Bethlehem looking for a place to stay, but they found no hospitality. There was not even room for them in the inn.
Candles placed in windows are a sign of hospitality to Christ. Candles are placed in windows and doors are kept unlocked as a way of saying that Christ is welcome in that house. They represent spiritually open minds and open hearts.
I see many homes with candles in the windows. But I suspect that few doors are unlocked. Fewer still would invite an itinerant minister to spend the night if he came knocking on the door. The presence of window candles no longer indicates that the inhabitants of that house worship Christ.
Christ says in scripture, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” The Christmas hymn says:
Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.