When I was little, the best part of the Christmas decorations, even better than the tree, were the window candles. My mother placed one in every window (with the cords adjusted to fit to every outlet) and one of my jobs was to wander the house as the darkness came down, turning them on. I loved looking out through the frosty glass at the cold dark yard right before I tightened the yellow-orange bulb and cast a warm glow on the window and throughout the room. I paused after each, thinking about light and dark, before moving on. At night, the golden light was comforting; I believed my mother when she told me that Santa Claus was checking on the neatness of my bedroom and spent hours huddled under the blankets so he could not see me. The candles helped.
When I left home, I bought my own window candles. I changed out the bulbs to a more sophisticated white, but still wandered through my small apartments, turning the candles on in December. The lights were especially beautiful in the houses that lacked good heat because of the frost on the window panes. I loved driving through small New England towns where all of the houses which lined the commons were window lit with candles. Square, proud Federal houses with white lights against the snow is a haunting image. Home, they said. We have been home for hundreds of years. You are safe here. Years later, I lived with a Jewish roommate. We celebrated Hanukkah and lit his menorah every evening, then placed it in the front window, where it’s light shone into the darkness. Candle light in the window grew in significance in my mind.
The Pacific Northwest does not use the window candles and our tiny house only has to front windows, one of which will hold the tree when Yule begins. But, as nights grow darker, I am drawn to lighting a candle in the evening, before I begin dinner. Like washing my hands, it creates a line between times of day. When the candle is lit, it is time to draw inward, chop an onion, turn off the news, and make dinner, creating, every night, home. Sometimes I leave the candle on the table, but I often move it to the bench by the front window, where the light reaches out to our dark and busy street.
I have read that the window candles signified a Catholic house in Ireland, a signal to the priests forced underground that a family was seeking his blessing, and that the Irish brought the idea to the United States. That would explain the geographic distribution of the decoration. I have also read that they were a beacon for travelers on Christmas Eve, that there was a meal and warm fire within. And I like that idea. As we move into dark times, small gestures, like a window candle, become more significant. Ours says that our house is a safe place—that if you are in trouble, you can knock on the door. I like to imagine streets, like the old Commons on New England, where there are candles in every window.