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Candles: The Promise of Light in the Darkness

Introspection, Hope, Transformation, & Renewal

Candle sitting in snow at sunrise

Candle making has a rich history and holds significant cultural and spiritual symbolism, especially during the winter months. Long before Edison's invention of the lightbulb, candles were indispensable sources of illumination. Early candles were crafted from tallow (animal fat) or beeswax, with occasional use of plant materials like bayberry and mullein. The process involved the repeated dipping of wicks into melted wax until the candles achieved the desired thickness. These homemade candles provided light during evenings and were essential for various activities, including reading, cooking, crafting, and socializing.

Frost on Blackberry Plant Prince Williams Forest, VA - lgkArt 2023

Navigating the period between Samhain (October 31) and Imbolc (February 1) feels akin to embarking on a journey through a liminal space, where the pace of life undergoes maybe not so subtle shifts. Our daily routines seamlessly blend with festive activities, filling the long, dark winter nights and warming the blustery days - for those in areas that experience plummeting temperatures and winter weather. Although the essential chores and obligations of daily life persist, the contemporary holiday season has been engulfed by consumerism, often transforming into a whirlwind of decorations and loud carols. Amidst this hustle and bustle, the profound essence of the season can easily fade into the background.

Striking a balance between our regular responsibilities and the demands of holiday festivities becomes especially challenging during this time. Many of us are already teetering on the edge of burnout, and our usual workload shows no signs of lightening to accommodate the additional (and sometimes mandatory) work and family obligations. To rediscover a connection to the season that echoes the practices of our ancestors, I like to embrace rediscovering the enchantment winter by minimizing the hustle while reminding myself to look at the world through a childlike lens. This approach encourages us to take time to turn inward, cocooning ourselves in a peaceful retreat, practice boundary setting, nourishing ourselves as much as possible, and allow ourselves to be curious and not take everything so serious. While exploring the traditions observed during this the winter months, I am continually drawn to the ancient wisdom of candles — a source of light in darkness. Candles symbolize more than mere illumination; they embody hope, transformation, and renewal across cultures and time. Delving into these age-old practices, we have the opportunity to embrace the profound significance of the season and honor its invitation to delve deeper into our own souls.

candle making - jar candles

Engaging in candle making and lighting rituals during the winter offers a tangible way to honor the traditions of our ancestors as well as the natural cycles of Mother Earth. These practices serve as a welcome to the spirits of our guides and ancestors to come visit as well as providing both warmth and guidance that illuminates our journey through this liminal time. As we anticipate the promised return of the light after the Winter Solstice, when we celebrate the growing length of days. This period of reflection and anticipation allows us to rediscover the enchantment in the quiet, introspective aspects of Winter.

In modern life, candles are often associated with hygge, a Danish concept that emphasizes coziness, contentment, and well-being. Lighting candles creates a warm and inviting atmosphere, making winter evenings more pleasant. However, candles offer more than just seasonal decor. They hold a profound use in mindfulness and meditation practices. Focusing on the gentle flicker of the flame can promote relaxation, reflection, and inner peace. It encourages introspection and the connection with one's thoughts and emotions. Additionally, they can be used to honor the memory of our passed loved ones or indicate a prayer has been made.

Another widespread tradition involving candles is the gradual lighting of candles leading up to Yule. This practice is observed across various cultures and religions, symbolizing the eager anticipation of the return of light and warmth after the darkest night of the year.

In Christianity, the tradition of lighting candles during Advent represents the gradual anticipation of the birth of Christ, symbolized as the "Light of the World." Each week, a new candle is lit on the Advent wreath, signifying specific elements of spiritual preparation leading up to Christmas. It begins with purple, representing preparation and repentance, followed by pink, signifying joy, and culminates with the lighting of the central white candle, the Christ candle, on Christmas Eve.

From my experience, the use of candles during this season wasn't prominent in Pentecostal denominations, where spiritual mysticism has often been removed and demonized. The symbolism of the flame was typically reserved for the celebration of Pentecost later in the Spring. However, one of my favorite traditions during my time as a Music Minister at a Methodist Church was the lighting of the Advent wreath, symbolizing hope and the return of light in the form of the birth of the Son of God. This tradition was heavily influenced and co-opted from Pagan traditions, where the lighting of candles each night leading up to Yule (December 21) or the Winter Solstice symbolizes the increasing strength and return of the astrological Sun. On Yule night, a special candle, often gold or white, representing the Sun, is lit to mark the rebirth of the Sun, the lengthening of days, and the promise of warmer weather and renewal.

The use of candles during this time is not limited to these traditions and the practice is remarkably similar across cultures and religions. Let's explore three examples of centuries-old traditions that celebrate a Festival of Lights during this season:

menorah stained glass

In Judaism, Hanukkah is celebrated with the lighting of a menorah over eight nights. Starting with one candle on the first night and gradually adding one more each night, it symbolizes the miracle of oil that lasted eight days in the ancient Temple. The increasing light signifies hope, faith, and the victory of light over darkness.

Diwali celebration alter

Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is celebrated with the lighting of oil lamps and candles. It symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. As the festival progresses, more and more lamps are lit, illuminating homes and communities, symbolizing the dispelling of ignorance with knowledge and awareness.

In Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, St. Lucia's Day on December 13th is celebrated with a procession led by a young girl wearing a crown of candles. The gradual addition of candles to the crown symbolizes the growing light and the hope of longer days returning after the winter solstice.

The gradual lighting of candles across cultures and religions leading up to Yule embodies the universal theme of hope, renewal, and the triumph of light over darkness. It serves as a powerful reminder of the enduring human spirit, always seeking illumination and warmth, even in the coldest and darkest of times. Through this tradition regardless of spiritual path, people come together to celebrate the returning light and embrace the promise of brighter days ahead.

Chinese New Year Dragon - Lunar New Year

As we transition into the new calendar year at midnight on December 31st, the celebrations intensify with the release of wishes and memories through fire rituals, the burning of effigies, and firework displays marking the occasion across cultures. This tradition is echoed by many cultures during the Lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year, celebrated later in January or February, where lively celebrations include dancing dragons and firecrackers, signifying the beginning of the Moon's new cycle fthrough the zodiac.

As we progress through the Wheel of the Year, candles continue to play a significant role, though their purpose and symbolism undergo subtle transformations. I am filled with anticipation to explore further the symbolism entwined with the Wheel of the Year. Through unraveling these intricate layers of meaning, we can tap into the ancient wisdom embedded within the turning wheel. This exploration offers us the opportunity to strengthen our bond with ourselves, our communities, and the natural world that surrounds us.

My hope is that as you immerse yourself in these words, you will find inspiration to welcome the gentle glow of candlelight into your homes this winter. May this newfound or renewed understanding of the candles symbolism kindle a connection to the flame within you. Together, let us embrace the enchantment of the season, uniting our spirits in the magic that resides within the dance of the candles' light.

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