Candles have been used for lighting and symbolic purposes for thousands of years. The act of burning a candle has developed many cultural, spiritual, and practical meanings. When we light a candle, it can represent hope, remembrance, prayer, celebration, or ritual. The flickering flame provides a focal point for meditation, and the melting wax signifies the passage of time. Exploring the history and symbolism behind candle burning can illuminate the profound role these objects play in religion, magic, and our everyday lives.
The History of Candles
The earliest candle-like objects were developed in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome. Egyptians made torches by soaking pithy cores of reeds in molten tallow. Romans produced crude candles known as cerei by dipping papyrus in melted tallow or beeswax. Wicks were introduced in these early candles to help regulate the burning process. Candles became more advanced during the Middle Ages, evolving from simple tapered sticks to more elaborate molded forms. Beeswax candles were introduced in Europe around the 11th century and rapidly spread as the preferred candle material due to their pleasant aroma and minimal soot. During the Colonial period, spermaceti wax derived from whale oil became popular for candle making. The Industrial Revolution brought monumental changes to candle manufacturing through mechanization and the use of paraffin wax. Paraffin could be produced efficiently and inexpensively from petroleum, making candles accessible commodities for the masses. From the humble rushlights of ancient times to the molded paraffin pillars of today, candles have illuminated homes and ritual spaces for millennia. Their straightforward form invites decoration, crafting candles into infinite shapes, colors and sizes throughout history.
Religious and Spiritual Symbolism
Candle burning holds special significance in many faiths and spiritual practices. The small flame signifies the soul or inner divinity in Hinduism and Buddhism. In Christianity, candles represent the light of God, often appearing on altars and in rituals. The Church adopted candles from Judaism, where they are lit on the Sabbath and festivals. The menorah lamp with spaces for seven candles is an important symbol of Judaism. Catholics light votive candles to represent prayers offered for healing, guidance, or commemoration. During Kwanzaa, seven candles are placed in a special candleholder called a kinara to represent the seven principles. In Wicca and other neo-pagan religions, different colored candles align with the elements, seasons, points on the Wheel of the Year, and other symbols. Candle magic plays an important role as well, using candle dressing, carving, and color symbolism to manifest goals. Across faiths, the candle flame radiates sacredness and acts as a harbinger of peace, hope, and contemplation.
One of the most common uses of candles today is to honor loved ones who have passed away. Lighting a candle in remembrance signifies that the deceased person’s spirit lives on and has not been forgotten. The tradition of lighting yahrzeit memorial candles on the anniversary of a death originated in Judaism. These candles burn for 24 hours, starting at sundown on the day of commemoration. Memorial candles often appear during the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, placed on gravesites and altars to welcome visiting spirits. At vigils mourning someone’s death, participants will light individual candles. When someone dies after an illness, loved ones frequently burn candles during their final days and hours as a way to stand vigil and show solidarity. Keeping a candle burning in the window lets the spirit find its way home and demonstrates that those left behind will always hold a place in their heart for the one who was lost. The living flame kindles memories and offers comfort to the bereaved.
Beyond symbolic meanings, burning candles serves practical purposes as well. Before electricity, candles provided necessary illumination at night. During power outages, they remain a reliable light source. Candles are also ubiquitous decoration pieces; simply placing an unscented pillar candle or candlestick on a table adds ambiance and warmth to a room. Scented candles release pleasant aromas; this aroma therapeutic quality turns candle burning into a relaxing ritual. Beeswax and soy candles have gained popularity as cleaner burning alternatives to paraffin. Floating candles create a stunning centerpiece in bowls of water. For safety, it’s critical to never leave burning candles unattended and keep them away from flammable materials. Practical cautions notwithstanding, candles remain an inexpensive way to add coziness, fragrance, and decoration to your home.
Celebration and Ceremony
The soft glow of candles livens parties and special events. Birthday cakes are topped with burning candles to represent each year of life; the birthday person makes a silent wish and blows the candles out in one breath. Anniversary dinners feature candlelight to create intimacy and romance. Wiccans and other pagan groups use candles of symbolic colors in seasonal rituals marking solstices, equinoxes, and other points on the Wheel of the Year. During Diwali, millions of oil lamps and candles illuminate homes to signify the triumph of light over darkness. Candles also burn on Christmas Eve as families sing carols and prepare for Santa’s arrival. The unity candle ceremony has become a popular tradition at weddings; the couple lights a center pillar candle from two separate taper candles to embody their joining. From holidays and ceremonies to intimate meals and ordinary days, the warm glow of candles brings joy and magic to celebrations great and small.
Setting the Mood with Candles
Candlelight provides a versatile way to create a desired atmosphere. Lighting scented candles in relaxing lavender, soothing vanilla, or tranquil chamomile fragrances establishes a peaceful mood for rest and rejuvenation. Cinnamon, peppermint, citrus, and pine scent profiles feel energizing and freshen indoor air. Using candles to infuse a space with joyful aromas like cookies, pumpkin spice, or gingerbread makes time spent indoors more festive. Flickering candle flames create a romantic ambiance for an intimate dinner or quiet evening alone. Groupings of pillar candles and taper candles add luxurious flair to formal dining rooms and event spaces. For safety, it’s key to extinguish candles before leaving a room unattended or getting drowsy. With proper precautions, candles allow us to curate our sensory experiences in the home.
Candle Magic and Intention Setting
In addition to mood enhancement, candles can focus intention and energy through magical practices. Color correspondences applied in candle magic enable manifesting specific outcomes. Pink and red candles attract love, orange and gold candles foster success and confidence, green accelerates growth and healing, black dissolves negativity. Candle dressing involves applying oils or etching symbols into wax that align with the desired result. The burning candle releases intentions put into it outward to the universe. Setting an intention and gazing into a candle’s hypnotic flame can clear and concentrate the mind. Letting go of an intention symbolically into the melting wax teaches surrender. Candles hold space for meditation, introspection, empowerment, and growth. With candle magic, the metaphysical properties of candles turn them into potent aids for cultivating inner peace or obtaining outward results through focused intention.
A candle’s glow passionately expresses human longing for light in the darkness. The comforting flicker connects us to the hearth fires and oil lamps that allowed ancestors to push back the night. By burning candles, we participate in an ancient and sacred tradition. Yet each candle lighting represents a personal ritual. The candle transforms into a reflection of our inner selves – our prayers, memories, desires, and vision for the future. Its supple wax accepts our impressions, and then shares our hopes and intentions with the universe through its radiant flame. Lighting a candle means opening a door between the seen and unseen worlds. This deceptively simple act builds community, empowers change, and brings everyday moments of joy. The deepest meanings of candles lie within our own hearts; by kindling candlelight, we illuminate our intentions and path forward. When we are ready, the candle awaits to share our purpose with the infinite.