Despite their popularity today, candles weren’t always used in religious holidays and rituals

Moments in Time by Jan Siegel
Moments in Time by Jan Siegel

By Jan Siegel

This year, three major celebrations begin on Dec. 25—Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. One thing these three holidays have in common is that they all incorporate candles. Hanukkah is often called the Festival of Lights, Christmas candles decorate homes and churches, and Kwanzaa, like Hanukkah, involves lighting candles each night of the festivities.

But candles have really only been popular for about 1,000 years. Before that, lamps or torches were used. For the poor in Eastern Europe, it was not uncommon that for Hanukkah, hollowed out potatoes were filled with oil and burned.

According to a 1942 article in the American Ecclesiastical Review, “Historians seem to be agreed that there was no ceremonial use of lighted candles, torches or lamps during the first three centuries. Lamps were used by the Romans in their sacrificial ritual, and the first Christians were careful to avoid anything that might resemble this form of worship.”

However, this attitude changed over time.

“Since services were held in the evening or early in the morning, light of some sort was a necessity. This was especially true when Mass was offered in the dark chambers of the catacombs. It was but a step for the Christians of later centuries, accustomed to the use of light about the altar and in the sanctuary, to retain lamps and candles, since the worshippers were not unaware of their beauty and symbolism.”

In the early church, processions were often part of the ritual, and candles led the way. Pope Sergius I (A.D. 687) introduced the procession, which was popular in Syria, where he had come from. Later on, popes started blessing the candles before the start of the processions. Eventually, the idea of processions disappeared, but the blessing of the candles remained.

Once candles became an important part of church ritual, it was decreed that candles for the church had to be made of beeswax. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the pure wax extracted by bees from flowers symbolizes the pure flesh of Christ received from His Virgin Mother, the wick signifies the soul of Christ, and the flame represents His divinity. Although the two latter properties are found in all kinds of candles, the first is proper of beeswax only.”

Honey bees were not indigenous to Europe. Like Christianity, they were brought from the Middle East to Europe. Honey bees were not indigenous to North, South or Latin America either. They had to be transported, and that was not easy. Thomas Jefferson called honey bees “white man’s flies.” It was not until 1853 that the first honey bees arrived in California. Botanist C.A. Shelton traveled by sea from the East Coast with 12 colonies of bees and arrived in California with only enough bees to start one colony.

With the coming of the Spanish missionaries to the Americas, a dilemma occurred. How were the churches going to be able to obtain candles made of beeswax? The answer was the Spanish Manila Galleons. For 250 years, between 1565 and 1815, the ships brought beeswax and candles along with clothing, cloth, porcelains and other goods to the New World. Only these ships were large enough to carry the large quantities of beeswax needed for the New World churches.

Over the centuries, the church has maintained its use of beeswax for candles, but has altered the percentage of beeswax needed to still remain pure. According to Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Msgr. Art Holquin, “the pre-Vatican II norms specified all of this in detail, permitting the 51 percent norm (for beeswax). Today, it merely states candles are to be used. The norm is far more flexible today, with the overarching principle that whatever is used in sacred worship be authentic and not artificial, leaving the door open for a latitude of interpretation.”

Spend a ‘Moment in Time’ and light up your holiday. A happy and healthy New Year to all.

Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.

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