In the time of darkness surrounding the winter solstice, candles were important as a source of light and heat. During the Saturnalia, Romans lit candles to convince the sun to shine again and to ward off evil. From this pagan start, the candle has gone on to become an essential part of Christmas lighting, both in church ceremonies and at home.
For Christians it symbolizes Christ himself, the light of the world; candles are used during Advent to mark the days before the coming Christmas. The Candlemas services that celebrate the purification of Mary forty days after Christ’s birth take their name from the candles that are blessed during the ceremony.
In Victorian times, candles came to represent concern and goodwill for the poor and unfortunate during the holiday season. Candles were placed in windows during the twelve days of Christmas as a sign to needy passersby that shelter and warmth could be found within.
Candles were the preferred means of lighting Christmas trees for many years. Although replaced on trees and in windows by electric replicas for the most part, real candles are still used — with care — in many caroling ceremonies and church celebrations today.
The first string of electric Christmas-tree lights was not sold until 1903. Only the wealthy could afford them, however, and only those with indoor electric outlets could use them. Most people continued to follow the earlier (and dangerous) tradition of affixing small lighted candles to the boughs of the tree. Larger trees bore hundreds of candles.