My oldest children’s father was often an enigma to me; he would stare for hours at something he noticed for the first time. His need to be still to ponder the significance of a new concept was often frustrating to me as not only did he require me to hang around until whatever captured him released him, but more so because he never could express the what and why of the experience.
One such time was a visit to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris back in 1982. I was excited about climbing up to see the gargoyles, and we had about an hour before we needed to head out to some other place. But shortly after we entered the immense nave, he froze in place. He had noticed, for the first time in his life, people coming to light prayer candles.The role of candles is present in many religions. Candles provide a focus for prayer. Lighting one signifies expression of a precise thought with the smoke and vapor rising upward, symbolic of the message rising to the heavens. Spanish prayer candles, or veladores, are typically about 8.5 inches tall inside a glass jar and will burn for a week.
Like many aspects of the Christian religion, the role of the candle has its roots in Judaism. Synagogues have an Eternal Light continually burning to signify the constant presence of God. The Hanukah festival this month celebrates the Eternal Light burning for 8 days with the amount of oil needed for one day’s light, giving the people time to produce more fuel following the destruction of the First Temple. Additionally, besides Sabbath candles lit each Friday evening, many Jewish people light a 24-hour candle to memorialize the anniversary date of a loved one’s death.
The lights used to decorate the Christmas tree are a safe modern alternative to the candles that used to be placed on the outer branches. In 19th century America, tin was pierced to create lights and lanterns to hold candles which could shine through the holes. Christmas lights strung outside are an expansion of this tradtion.