The Role of Candles Across World Cultures: A look at how candles were used for rituals, celebrations, and daily life in various cultures around the world.
In the dim glow of the flickering light, stories of old were passed down, prayers were whispered, and quiet moments were cherished. Candles, simple in their construction but profound in their symbolism, have illuminated the course of human civilization. From the ancient temples in Egypt to our cozy homes, the gentle candle light has transcended through time, outliving empires and watching the rise and fall of dynasties. They have witnessed our joys, our sorrows, as well as the quiet, in-between moments that define our human experience. As we journey across continents and dive deep into various cultures, we uncover the universal allure that the candlelight delivers. Explore how candles have shaped rituals, celebrations, and the everyday moments across different cultures and regions.
History of Candles
Candles have been a source of light for over 5,000 years. Technically, the first candles were dated back to ancient Egypt in the form of rushlights, or torches, which were made of pithy reed cores soaked in melted animal fat. However, rushlights did not have wicks unlike “true” candles. While the earliest portable lights were attributed to the ancient Egyptians, ancient Romans are credited for the first wicked candle. Rolled papyrus repeatedly dipped in melted tallow, these wicked candles were primarily used to light up homes, aid travelers at night, and for religious ceremonies. Other ancient civilizations developed their own unique candle structures from the resources available. In ancient China, rice paper wicks were carefully placed on top of hardened insect and seed wax mixtures. Not too far southeast in ancient India, wax was made by boiling the fruit of cinnamon trees.
Major Historical Contributions in Candle Making
Major contributions in candle making arose when beeswax was introduced to Europe during the 13th century. Unlike animal-based tallow which produced a sharp, foul odor when burned, beeswax emitted a pleasant and fresh smell without producing a smoky flame. At the time, candle making became a guild practice in England and France as chandlers would go door to door offering their services to civilians. During the 19th century a French chemist developed stearin wax by extracting stearic acid from animal fatty acids. Stearin wax was harder and more durable than beeswax and burns cleaner as well. Furthermore, a candle making machine was invented to increase efficiency in production and candles became a more affordable commodity. However, with the invention of the light bulb in 1879, interest in candles declined towards the end of the century. Candle popularity picked up again during the 20th century. In the 1980s, there was a large interest in candles as decorative items. From various sizes, shapes, colors, and most importantly scents, consumers purchased candles to enhance the ambiance of their homes and give gifts to their friends and families. In the 1990s, for the first time in over a century, new types of candle waxes were being developed such as soybean wax which not only burns longer and cleaner, but is also biodegradable.
Today, candles serve to symbolize celebration, kindle romantic relationships, calm the senses, commemorate ceremonies, and enhance home aesthetics. Furthermore, candles play integral roles in various religious and cultural rituals.
Candles in Religious and Spiritual Rituals
Candles hold deep and symbolic significance in Christianity, and their use spans across various rituals and personal devotions. The bible alludes to candles as a representation of Jesus Christ as the light of the world. According to the Christian beliefs, Jesus is the light that guides his followers through the darkness of sin, life, and struggle. Lighting candles during worship signifies this divine light that repels the darkness. Additionally, votive candles, small candles typically intended to burn as votive offerings, are physical representations of Christian prayer. When lit, they not only represent someone’s prayer, but also the intentions that prayer holds. The candle’s continuous burn symbolizes that the prayer continues even after the person leaves the church.
It is customary for believers of Judaism to generate light through candles on three separate occasions; just before the arrival of Shabbat, the conclusion of Shabbat, and throughout the eight days of Hanukkah. Every Friday evening before sunset, two Shabbat candles are to be lit to welcome the Shabbat. These candles represent the sanctity of marriage and family, and also serve as a reminder for good behavior in the privacy of the house and inner circle. Shabbat ends with a Havdalah ceremony, which involves a special braided candle with braided wicks. The lighting of the Havdalah candle as well as a recited blessing over its flame marks the ending of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week for the family. During Hanukkah, the Jewish festival held to reaffirm the beliefs of Judaism and to commemorate the rededication of the second temple of Jerusalem, a special menorah that holds space for eight candles and a central “shamash”, or helper candle, is used. A new candle is lit every day of the festival to commemorate the miracle of oil that lasted eight days in the rededicated temple.
In Buddhism, offerings serve symbolic significance and are means of cultivating certain qualities and mindsets on the path to enlightenment. Many of the traditional offerings are presented at altars or temples. Candles, or offerings of light, are lit at altars or temples to represent the ability to see the nature of mind and body as one trains themselves to follow the path taught by Lord Buddha. While offering light temporarily clears and sharpens our mind for meditation, its primary purpose is to destroy the darkness of ignorance and increase our wisdom.
In Hinduism, as in Buddhism, the light from candles and lamps represents the knowledge that dispels the darkness of ignorance. The act of lighting a lamp or candle symbolizes the victory of good over evil and light over darkness. Each year on Diwali, one of the major holidays in Hinduism, there is a five day festival that marks the beginning of the Hindu new year. During the festival of lights, rows upon rows of oil lamps and candles are lit to request Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune, to shower the earth with auspicious blessings for the upcoming year.
Cultural and Folk Practices
Day of the Dead: An Iconic Mexican Holiday
Marked by vibrant marigolds, intricately designed sugar skulls, and candlelit altars, the Day of the Dead, or “Día del los Muertos,” is a deeply rooted and iconic holiday in Mexico. The purpose of the Day of the Dead is to honor one’s ancestors as well as their deceased family members and friends on the day of which their souls are believed to return to earth. On the first of November, every family across Mexico visits the site where their loved ones rest, bringing food and drink and decorating their graves with many candles. Candles are lit to guide the deads’ spirits back to their graves to reunite with their families in the living world. The flickering light of the candles are symbols of life’s continuity, even in the face of death. It is also a reminder for those on earth that there is hope for reunion in the afterlife.
Gromnica: Poland’s Mighty Thunder Candle
In the heart of Polish tradition, every household carries a “gromnica”, also referred to as the “thunder candle”. Historically, it was believed that lighting the gromnica and placing it by the windowsill would protect the household from thunder and lightning during storms. The candle also holds significance on the Polish holiday of Candlemas Day, a celebration of the end of winter. On this day, members of the household would take the gromnica to church for the priest to light and bless. After, they would bring the candle back home trying their best to keep the flame burning. It is believed that if the flame goes out on the journey back home, the family will experience bad omen.
The Candle Dance: A Palestinian Wedding Tradition
At Palestinian weddings, the candle dance stands out as a luminous tradition. A procession of women, including the mother and mother-in-law, are led by the bride entering the reception while carrying tall white candlesticks with their brightly lit flames. They swiftly make their way to the dance floor where they take turns sharing the candle dance, a captivating display of intertwining light and joy that represents unity and celebration. The traditional dance is a symbolic way of illuminating the newly betrothed on their new life path.
The Representation of Life, Energy, and Hope: Candles in African Culture
In the vast spectrum of African culture, candles are much more than mere sources of light. They embody rituals, symbolize hope, and mark celebrations in the continent's varied communities. Candles play an integral role in spiritual practices as they are used to communicate with ancestors and deities because their light serves as a beacon guide for the spirits to visit the physical world. As candle light also symbolizes life and transformation, lighting candles during weddings and coming of age ceremonies underscores the importance of a seamless transition between life’s phases. Beyond these spiritual and ceremonial roles, the colors of the candles hold significant meaning. Red candles, for example, signifies passion and love, white candles represent purity and spirituality, and black candles provide protection.
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The Associated Press. “Residents across India Celebrate Diwali with Festivities and Dazzling Lights.” NPR, NPR, 24 Oct. 2022, www.npr.org/2022/10/24/1130942026/residents-across-india-celebrate-diwali-with-festivities-and-dazzling-lights.