During this season of short, dark days, candles and lights are important elements in winter celebrations around the world. The earliest winter solstice ceremonies involved the use of fire because people in ancient times feared that the failing light would not return unless humans intervened with ceremony and celebration. As new religions were introduced to humanity, fire continued to be an important part of many of their celebrations because it symbolizes the Light of God.
Muslim Iranians still light fires to observe Yalda, the Persian Winter Solstice celebration that originated with the ancient religion of Mithraism. The Mithraists believed that the winter solstice was the night that Mithra, Persian god of light and truth, was born to a virgin mother. After this longest night of the year, the daily increase in sunlight symbolized the triumph of the sun god over the powers of darkness.
The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks, and the rededication of the temple at Jerusalem. Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights, which Jewish families observe by lighting a candle for each of the eight days that comprise the Hanukkah celebration.
Christians observe the advent of Christmas by lighting a candle on each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. These candles symbolize hope, love, faith and joy. The white candle in the center of the circle is lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize the birth of the Christ Child. The wise men, astrologers from Persia, found the baby Jesus by following the light of a great star.
Of all the symbols attributed to the divine, light is the one found most frequently throughout the world’s holy writings. Anyone who is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures knows that they are full of references to light and fire, starting at the beginning when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.