Should you be traveling in Ireland this winter season, or in one of the places the far flung sons and daughters of Ireland have made homes, from Wyoming to north Florida to Western Australia to Cape Breton, from Norway to Inverness to Fairbanks, to you’ll see see lights set in the windows, especially on Christmas eve.
A light in the window to light the traveler’s way: that’s a tradition which goes back into history. long before the time of Christ. A story told in Irish families, though, is that the light in the window is to light the way for the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph were out on the road, seeking a place to stay that night in Bethlehem. On that night their search is remembered, as is the traveler out on the road these days. In earlier times, when hospitality was perhaps more respected that it is these days, it used to be the custom to leave the door unlocked on Christmas eve, to bank the fire, and to leave a loaf bread and something to drink out on the table so if a a traveler weary on the road sought shelter and rest, he or she would find that and more. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s where the ideas of leaving cookies and milk for Santa Claus had its start.
When I was small we had this really heavy glass holder into which we’d put what was known in our house as the Christ candle. It had a thick base and was clearly hand blown, not machine made at all. That made it all the more interesting to watch the dancing flames of the candle through the wavy sides of the glass, which had a slight tinge of steel blue. We always placed an ivory colored candle in this holder.
When I was small, I liked knowing that candle was burning, welcoming, keeping watch, and I liked hearing the stories, both of the houses in Ireland which would have lights in their windows too, and of the travelers who might be out on the road. Later, when I was old enough to go to midnight mass, when we came back around the corner of the road that brought us home, I’d always see that candle in the window, and it always gave me a smile.
I inherited that heavy glass candle holder some years back, and kept it in use each December. Even when it cracked right down the middle one year, I glued it back together and it went on shedding its Advent and Christmas light for a few years longer. Finally, though, it told me it was time to go.
I do not still have the blue glass holder for the Christ candle, and I do not live in that house by the curve of the road. There will be a light in my window this Christmas Eve, though, and as it welcomes me home from midnight mass, I will still remember the traveler’s stories, and the story of the Holy Family out on the road. I will think of homes and lodgings and places all across the world with lights in their windows, and smile.
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