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For many Irish households, putting a single candle in the window on Christmas Eve is a much-loved tradition. But the finer points of the custom can vary from home to home.

Some use red candles, others use white. Some say the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the family. While others say Mary should do it – if there happens to be someone in the household who goes by that name! For some, the ritual wouldn’t be complete if the candle wasn’t placed inside a hollowed out turnip. For others, it’s essential to leave it burning through the night.

What does the candle represent?

The meaning behind this tradition is also something that differs between households. Many say the candle’s warm light, which can be seen through the darkness, is a sign of welcome to weary travellers. Leaving the door unlatched can be part of the custom too.

Some do it to welcome the birth of Jesus, while others say it’s a sign of reception to Mary and Joseph – who were turned away by innkeepers in the story of Jesus’ birth. Some even believe the tradition originated because of Ireland’s Penal Laws. When Catholics were forced to celebrate mass in secret, they say a candle in the window signalled its location.

The Irish tradition has spread to parts of the US too, continued on by the descendants of Irish emigrants. In some states, candles can be seen in windows year round. Although it’s unclear if this is linked to the Irish tradition, or stems from another origin. But, similarly to the Irish case, online debates around the American custom never seem to reach a consensus. Opinions diverge on whether it’s a way to welcome wayward sons, passing soldiers or loved ones returning home from war.

However, whatever it means to you, there is no doubt that a candle in the window has become a symbol of hope and hospitality for many. And in Ireland, it has taken on a new meaning in more recent times.

A symbol for Irish emigrants

In November 1990, when Mary Robinson became Ireland’s first female President, her acceptance speech directly addressed the Irish diaspora.

“But I am not just a President of those here today, but of those who cannot be here – and there will always be a light on in Áras an Uachtaráin for our exiles and our emigrants,” she said.

While growing up in Ballina, Co. Mayo, Robinson became familiar with the tradition of putting a candle in the window at Christmastime. So when she took up her new official residence at Áras an Uachtaráin in the Phoenix Park that December, she placed a light in the window as a symbol to Irish emigrants and their descendants that they are always welcome back home in Ireland.

Neville Isdell (left) and Mary Robinson officially opening EPIC and switching on the candle in 2016.

The candle shines brightly all year round above the entrance of EPIC and out the glass façade of The CHQ Building on to the river Liffey in Dublin.

Throughout her presidency, she followed through on her promise and, shortly after her second term, the Irish Constitution was amended to reflect the diaspora’s role in Irish history and culture.

The original candle-like light now shines from the window of the Ballina library. However, in Áras an Uachtaráin, it was replaced by a Tilley lamp given to the next President, Mary McAleese, upon her inauguration. Now, President Michael D. Higgins continues on the new tradition.

So 30 years on, when many Irish emigrants can’t return home due to travel restrictions, the light still shines – visible from the main road going through the Phoenix Park.

In honour of that tradition and the work of Mary Robinson in gaining recognition for Ireland’s emigrants and diaspora, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum was delighted to be officially opened by the former President in 2016, and to have her switch on our candle sculpture, which continues to shine brightly above our entrance and out our window.

Want to know more about the experiences of Irish emigrants and their impact on the world? Visit EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum this Christmas! Our museum is open daily from 10am, and will be open throughout the Christmas period (closed 24 & 25 December). Book your tickets here.