The holiday season has arrived, and many homes are glowing with beautiful festive lights. Did you know that these lights sometimes have a specific purpose or carry a deeper meaning? Read on to learn about traditions that celebrate with holiday lights!
On the second night of Hanukkah <HAH nu kah>, a candle is lit in a sacred candleholder called a hanukkiyah or menorah. Each night, one candle is added to the hanukkiyah until the total reaches eight on the last night. Candles are added to the hanukkiyah from right to left, but they are lit from left to right. In Israel, gigantic hanukkiyahs that are taller than people are lit in public squares for all to see. The two books of Maccabees in the Bible tell the story of Hanukkah. In 165 B.C., the Jews in Judea defeated the Syrian tyrant Antiochus IV. When the Jews emptied the Temple of Syrian idols, they found only one small bottle of oil to burn in their menorah. Miraculously, out of the one small bottle came enough oil to last for eight days.
Families celebrating Kwanzaa (KWAHN zuh>, a holiday honoring African American culture and heritage, arrange the mishumaa saba in a special candleholder called a kinara. Three red candles are placed on the left side of the kinara, and three green candles are placed on the right. A single black candle is placed in the center. One candle is lit for each of the seven days of Kwanzaa. Each candle represents a different principle of black culture for the family to celebrate. These principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).
Hundreds of years ago, German Christians decorated their Christmas trees with candles. The candlelight was a symbol for Jesus Christ, whom they considered to be “the light of the world.” This tradition eventually was adopted around the world wherever people celebrated the holiday. Today, many people use electric string lights to decorate their Christmas trees. This is much safer than putting burning candles in a tree!
In Mexico and Central America, people march through the streets holding candles as part of the Las Posadas festival, which happens in the week before Christmas. The Spanish word posadas means inns. During the festival, people reenact the pregnant Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem on the night the child Jesus is born—the first Christmas Eve. In Ireland, families place one lighted candle in a window of their house on Christmas Eve. A candle in the window shows that Mary and Joseph would have been welcome to rest in that house.
5. In some countries, the Festival of Lights can mean breakfast in bed!
Families in Italy, Sweden, Croatia, and other countries celebrate Saint Lucy’s Day, also called the Festival of Light, on December 13th. The day marks the traditional beginning of the Christmas season. Historians think that Saint Lucy’s Day grew out of pre-Christian festivals and legends attached to the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, which falls close to December 13. Many ancient peoples marked the solstice with bonfires, lighted candles, and special foods. Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia, is believed to have died in A.D. 303 or 304. Her name is related to the Italian word luce and the Latin word lux, both meaning light. Lucy is considered the special guardian of people with eye problems. She often is shown holding a candle or lantern. In a traditional Swedish celebration of Saint Lucy’s Day, a daughter of the family plays the part of Saint Lucy. She gets up early, dresses in white, and wears a crown of candles. She then wakes her family members by serving them hot coffee and special pastries called “Lucy’s cats.” Today, town processions to mark the day are common.
6. Diwali is a Hindu festival of lights.
Hindus throughout India and around the world celebrate Diwali <dih VAH lee>. It lasts from two to five days during the Hindu month of Kartika (October to November). During this time, people decorate their homes and temples with beautiful arrangements of small lighted oil lamps. People celebrating the holiday may visit each other, exchange gifts and greeting cards, and dress in new clothes. The oil lamps hold many different meanings. Some believe they light the path of visiting ancestors, and others that they symbolize the turning of the human spirit from darkness to light. The holiday holds different meanings for different groups of Hindus, but a focus of many celebrations is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. So, the holiday has special importance for business owners, merchants, and shopkeepers. For these people, the Diwali lamps are meant to guide Lakshmi to their homes to bless them with prosperity. Other figures honored in Diwali are Rama and Sita, main characters of the ancient poem the Ramayana, and Kali, the goddess of destruction.
By: Echo Gonzalez, Science Editor & Researcher
Photo credit: © Subbotina Anna, Shutterstock