Illuminating look at humble candle

OLIVER CROMWELL: not a big fan of Christmas

OLIVER CROMWELL: not a big fan of Christmas

First published in Countryman's Diary by

ONE of the older traditions at Christmas is the use of candles. There is something rather special about them and the light they produce, perhaps because they are no longer an essential part of the domestic scene.

There are some of us, myself included, who can recall times when houses and outbuildings were lit by candles or oil lamps, especially in rural areas. I recall my paternal grandparents’ cottage which had no running water, no flush toilets (WCs – water closets – as they were then known) and no electricity either for cooking or lighting. I remember the decor inside the cottage being entirely Victorian, even down to the green baize tablecloths with white lace covers. And there was an aspidistra on a stand in the corner of the room.

Their heating and cooking facilities depended on a coal fire within an iron hearth known as a Yorkist range which had an oven at one side, and a boiler at the other, complete with brass tap. The fire warmed the water in that tank – but it had to be filled by hand from a watering can. Not surprisingly, the necessary stocks of food, coal, logs, candles and supplies of oil for the lanterns were assembled in the weeks before winter set in. There had to be enough of everything to be sure of being able to survive a bad winter with lots of deep snow – even for several weeks.

Heavy snow that had drifted around the house to obstruct access and exits was known as being “all ’apped in” – all happed (wrapped) in – while a dusting of light snow was called a strinkling. If snow was blowing into drifts, it was called stouring or stowering and if there was ice on the paths, they were slape (slippery).

However, in winter the interior of that cottage was always cosy due to the coal or log fires in every room, including bedrooms when necessary, and there was ample light from the fire, oil lamps and candles. In those times and much earlier, candles were a vital source of light but now they have become popular as decorative items.

I’m sure there are now more varieties of candles than ever before, including those that exude a delightful scent, and all make excellent Christmas gifts.

Giving candles as Christmas gifts is not a new idea. In many rural areas, the gift of a Yule Candle was considered ideal for any person one wished to impress. Yule Candles were massive – the idea was that they were cheap to buy but lasted a very long time, consequently poor and humble workers would give them to their bosses, hoping to make a good and lasting impression, and some children gave them to their teachers.

Trades people would also give them to special customers, hoping to maintain their patronage during the following year. I have a record of such a worker presenting a Yule Candle to his boss’s family as recently as 1926.

The notion of having special candles for Christmas is by no means new and down the ages they have been associated with several religions.

They were used by the ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans for special occasions and it was a theologian called Simeon who described the Child Jesus as “a Light to lighten the Gentiles.”

It was probably his reference that led to the increased use of candles during the Catholic mass, with extra-special ones for Christmas festivities.

Before the Reformation, it was customary to set up a massive candle within the church so that it burned throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as a reminder of the birth of Christ.

In Scotland it was believed if this candle went out before midnight on Christmas Eve, it heralded a great calamity.

If it continued to burn after midnight, it was eventually extinguished late on Christmas Day.

Its meagre remains were preserved for the eventual funeral of the head of the local great family. Candles, torches and tapers were used at funerals, often with several candles burning around the corpse as it awaited burial. This was considered a very important practice as candles were thought to symbolise the fact that Christ was the light of the world and his light would ease the passage of souls from earth to heaven.

One important aspect of candles was that they were available to the poor, often without candlesticks. The mere fact of holding a lighted candle was considered a prayer in itself and it was often seen as a means of making a visible homage to the Crucified Christ. Not surprisingly, candles were widely used in all Catholic churches before the Reformation. Their symbolism was important if misunderstood by many.

In Ireland, a massive candle was also featured at mass over Christmas but this had to be sufficiently large to be used also on New Year’s Eve, then again on Twelfth Night.

Before being lit, it was decorated with holly and I believe a similar custom existed in Germany and Finland. I like the custom in Norway where Christmas candles are sited so they shine in the polished silver dishes used on Christmas Day, while in Switzerland, lighted candles are still used on Christmas trees instead of electric lights.

In England, the Protestant reformers did their best to restrict or even outlaw the use of candles in church and for religious events. In 1548, the candlelit ceremony on the feast of Candlemas (February 2) was banned. During church services, only two lit candles were permitted. In that same year, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, toured his diocese to check whether his changes were being implemented. He questioned people about whether they kept statues at home, or celebrated the forbidden Catholic feast days with candles, ashes and palms.

He also asked whether parish churches had more than two candles on their altars and made it clear that it was then forbidden to light candles around deceased people as they lay in church awaiting burial.

The celebration of Christmas was also curtailed. Dances, games and other ceremonies that dated into the ancient past were forbidden – in fact, everything not directly linked to the church and the new faith was outlawed. Then the Puritans capped all this a century later by entirely abolishing Christmas. On December 24, 1647, Cromwell’s Parliament issued the order “That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof.”

It was the restoration of the monarchy with the return of Charles II that helped to reinstate Christmas as a major religious festival but it can be argued that it was his people who, perhaps unintentionally, began the long process of turning Christmas into a purely secular celebration devoid of any religious symbolism.

For example, one of the Cavalier poets wrote a song in praise of “Plum puddings, goose, capon, minced pies and roast beef”.

Whatever the tribulations suffered during Christmases past, it continues to be a worldwide celebration with religion (and candles) featuring prominently – and so I wish all readers the happiest of the season’s greetings.


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