What is the Significance of Candles as Gifts?
Oftentimes we take for granted the presence of candles in our holiday décor. They have always simply been there, strikingly present: in our hazy childhood Christmas memories, in faded photograph albums, in the windows we dress for the holidays in our own homes now.
Candles have become synonymous with this cozy time of year, and curiously, most prefer to give rather than receive: 64% of consumers report that they have gifted a candle to a loved one. But where did this particular tradition originate? Why do we feel so compelled to share in the love and light throughout the holiday season? The answer dates back to the Hellenistic era, long before anyone had ever heard a Christmas hymn.
Season’s Greetings Through the Ages
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume the gifting of candles began as a Christian tradition. After all, the story of Jesus’ birth is all about gifts: the three magi, following the guidance of the bright Star of Bethlehem, famously offered the baby gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In many modern nativity scenes, artisans envision the star as a kind of massive cosmological candle, pouring a natural spotlight directly upon the wretched wooden manger and humble bed of hay. Moreover, the Bible contains more than 500 references to fire, and at least 90 present the divine’s appearance as a form of fire: the burning bush in Exodus 3, for example.
Saturnalia and Spirituality
However, the tradition of candle-giving around the winter holidays actually harkens back to much earlier pagan rituals. In the Roman era, the winter sowing season was celebrated with a holiday known as Saturnalia, during which gifts were offered to the god Saturn, who represented time and agriculture.
This holiday, from which Christmas was later derived, was a joyful time of socializing, eating, drinking, and ceasing all work. Amazingly, even slaves were permitted time off their duties in order to join in on the celebrations. A typical gift offered during Saturnalia was a wax candle called cerei, which signified the light that would return after the solstice.
No matter your religious or spiritual background, candles are an enduring symbolic representation of both the material and spiritual realms, and a reminder of the promise of longer days after the cold winter. No matter how deep the darkness, there will always be a return to love and light.