Symbols of Faith in Candles and Light


Brian Kroeger is a seeker of wisdom that is found in religious traditions. As an Our Lady of Peace Chaplain, he seeks stories within these traditions that highlight that love is eternally true. He says his stories reveal a commonality with patients of different faiths, making it possible to better relate, communicate, and respect the people he serves.

Religious traditions are filled with light, from a Christmas tree in the corner of a living room to a menorah on a table and boats of light floating down the river in Laos. Light from the sun, the stars, lightbulbs, and candles have meaning. They spark memories and traditions that travel back in time.

As we head into the holidays, we would like to share some traditions of candles and light with you, shared by Chaplain Brian:

The Light of Christianity

In ancient times, people understood God to be the solid, unchanging force that causes all change in the universe. Seasons changed on earth and life was in motion. The sun, moon, and planets were seen as more regular than life on earth, and the stars were more unchanging still.

When people looked up, they felt closer to God.

In the Christian faith, the eternity candle remains lit in churches to signify the solid unwavering light that is God. In Catholic churches, candles are lit all year long to pray to the saints, illuminating parishioners and the saints to the needs of the people. A candle is a beacon for heavenly hosts to provide comfort and care. Candles are also lit to memorialize loved ones who have passed, representing how they continue to shine God’s light in the world.

When the sun dies on the winter solstice, creating cold and darkness, people light candles as beacons of hope. And at Christmas time, candles and tree lights represent the Star of Bethlehem, guiding the Magi to the stable where Jesus was born. They are a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world.

The Menorah of Chanukah

In the Jewish faith, the eight candles of the menorah represent eight nights of light. The menorah was lit to rededicate the temple after retaking Jerusalem from Greek-Syrian oppressors. God performed a miracle in that the oil they had for only one day lasted eight days, although no new oil appeared. Chanukah is described as The Festival of Lights, and the menorah symbolizes that God’s light and love remains.

Sunlight is also significant in the Jewish faith. On the first day of creation, Adam fell asleep when sun went down, and he thought it was the end of the world, so he thanked and said goodbye to animals. When the sun rose in the morning, Adam realized that even in intense darkness, we hold the hope that the light of God will continue.

The Lanterns of Diwali

Diwali marks the beginning of the rainy season in Hindu Valley of India and signifies the triumph of Lord Krishna over the evil Narakasura. Even the gods need to rest, and when they do, it is believed that the forces of chaos and rain take over. Camphor oil lanterns are lit to signal the return of the gods and warmth. Camphor is important to Hindu worship and the puja worship ritual. In this ceremony, people hold the lanterns and rock back and forth in front of the paintings of gods to cast dancing lights on their faces as a symbol of life, making the paintings come alive.

The Fire and Light of Indigenous People

In Native American culture, sacred fires have been used for generations to heal, bond together, and begin sacred ceremonies, events, or rituals. Not only do sacred fires have a variety of unique benefits, but the sacred fire itself has traditions and protocols that are followed to uphold its integrity and sacredness. Fire has the power to purify and overcome evil. Male and female fire dancers dance barefoot on embers while one of them divines the future, cautions against coming evil, and presages good or bad omens.

Fire is essential for life, represents living things, the creation of light, and the sun, and is incorporated into celebrations. Traditionally, men are the firekeepers who maintain and watch over the sacred fire, while women attend the ceremony. This can vary depending on tribe or nation and the type of ceremony that is taking place. There are designated people assigned the role of firekeeper and they are the only people allowed to disturb the fire and stand watch throughout the ceremony.

The Candles of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community, and culture, and Kwanzaa candles are used during the African American and Pan-African holiday. Seven candles, one black, three red, and three green, are placed in the kinara, or candle holder. Each candle represents one of the seven core principals of Kawaida philosophy. The black candle represents the African and Pan-African people and is lit on the first day. The red candles represent: Self-determination, collective work, and cooperative economics. The green candles represent: Looking inside one-self to set personal and community goals, creativity, and faith.

One candle is lit on a specific day of the seven-day Kwanzaa celebration. The kinara has a designated place on the table during Kwanzaa and the table is set at the beginning of the holiday.

The Goddess of Light in Buddhism

Gaunyin is the goddess of compassion, love, and beauty in Buddhism. One story tells us that all young men were eager to marry her and be the husband of a goddess. When they lined up to be chosen to receive her love, she told them to be considered, they must meditate on a mountain top for a full year. Some grew tired and went home. When winter fell and it became dark, more went home to light a fire to stay warm. Only one man remained, and when the spring sun came, he looked up from his meditation and saw Guanyin in the most beautiful

golden robe. She was the embodiment of sun and light, representing the rebirth of everything. The moral of this story is to be wed to the goddess, or the divine, takes devotion and belief that the light will return after a long darkness.

The lighted boats of Boun Lai Heua Fai

Although the Hmong New Year is the biggest celebration of Hmong culture, light comes to life in Boun Lai Heua Fai, the festival of light celebration of Boun Ask Phansa in Laos. It signifies the end of three lunar months of Buddhist Lent that begins in July. It is believed that the ceremony originated to pay homage to river deities and their spirits. Decorated lanterns are placed in homes and fire boats known as krathongs are floated down the river to signify letting go of immoral thoughts and actions, such as greed and anger. These small boats are made from a banana tree trunk, acting as a base, and decorated with flowers and candles. At the water’s edge, wishes re murmured before they are let go to float down the river.

There are so many multi-cultural traditions of light that it is difficult for us to cover them all. We would love to hear yours. We invite you to share your stories of light in your faith and cultural lives on our Facebook page.

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