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Why we had a red candle in the window on Christmas Eve

Many Irish homes still follow the custom of placing the Christmas Eve candle in the window, traditionally a red candle, big enough to burn all night, to show the welcome for Christ that He had never received in Bethlehem.

In parts of the country this candle had to be lit by a Mary or John, but in our home it was always lit by the youngest standing child. It was as important a part of Christmas Eve as the anticipation of Santa Claus.

When we returned from Midnight Mass, the candle would shine from the darkened porch, and the crisp air gave it, in our excited imagination, a magical shimmer. The welcome for the Holy Family was real and genuine in Irish homes in the times before charity became old fashioned, and many a Christmas saw a guest at our crowded table in the true spirit of the day.

The Christmas Candle in the window is not a custom peculiar to Ireland, but it is a particularly strong tradition here, not least perhaps because it was also used in penal times to signify a home where a priest could celebrate Mass in safety. In fact some say that the tradition began there and continued as a Christmas custom when the penal days ended.

They were cruel days, and families as well as priests were punished if caught practising the Catholic Faith. The Irish people often walked miles in inclement weather and uneven countryside to join their priests at Mass Rocks, which have now become common and well-known features of the Irish landscape. A home, free of suspicion, where Mass could be celebrated in quiet and safety, was a welcome haven for priest and congregation.

My neighbour’s great-aunt hailed from near Ballintober in Co Mayo where the infamous priest-hunter John Mullowney, or Sean a Sagart, had caught a number of Catholic clergy and turned them over to the authorities. A story endured that John had deduced that Mass was to be said by a Father Bourke in a home in the parish and that a candle would be lit to indicate that all could proceed in safety.

The priest-hunter gained entry to the house and, by threat, held the occupants quiet while he awaited the arrival of the priest. When he went to light the candle however, the flame would not catch, and try as he might, no false light of safety went forth from the house that night. The priest was spared.

In these safer times let’s keep the old tradition and light the candle of welcome this Christmas Eve.

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