A number of different Advent customs require the lighting of candles. Some writers believe that the use of candles during Advent may have been adopted from the fires and lights that illuminated pre-Christian midwinter festivals. Before the widespread use of electric lighting, the twinkling candles not only served to dispel the gloom of the long winter nights, but also represented the hope of light and life to come. In Christian terms, the flame of the Advent candle represents the coming of Jesus, “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Placing a lighted candle in the windowsill is perhaps the simplest Advent candle custom. In Europe during centuries past, a flickering candle in the window symbolized the offer of hospitality to nighttime wayfarers. Some believed the glowing light might even attract the Christ child. The Irish brought with them the tradition of placing a lighted candle in the windowsill at Christmas time when they emigrated to the United States. In the late nineteenth century groups of carolers popularized the custom in Boston. From there the practice spread to other American cities. The citizens of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, keep candles in their windows at Christmas time, though they trace their tradition back to the town’s Moravian founders. Christmas time candles also twinkle in the windows of historic Williamsburg, Virginia. The custom there developed as a means of decorating historic district homes in a manner consistent with the town’s colonial architecture and décor.
In the American Southwest people decorate the exteriors of their homes with luminarias, candles placed in brown paper bags filled with sand. This custom originated in Mexico. Many churches hold special candle-lighting services sometime during Advent. Often, each person attending is given a candle. The lighting of these candles then becomes part of the service.
Advent wreaths may be found in both home and church Advent observances. These wreaths contain four candles, one for each of the four Sundays of Advent. One is lit on the first Sunday of Advent. One more candle is lit on each of the following Sundays until on the fourth Sunday of Advent all four candles burn in unison. These four Advent candles may also be used without a wreath.