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Candles in the window ; A tradition that glows on and on during the holidays and beyond

Candles twinkle in the windows at the East Aurora home of Fred and Cindy Schmidt, as they do in many this time of year.

The electric candles are placed in the front, side and back windows of the center-entrance Colonial, some 15 candles in all.

It's their visual warmth that appeals to Cindy Schmidt, the welcoming message they send -- even after the holidays.

"We leave them up longer -- throughout the wintertime -- usually a couple months after we have taken down the Christmas decorations," she says.

A window candle is a traditional custom for many, and today's faux versions -- far safer than the real thing people once used -- come in a variety of styles.

At Christmastime, candles may glow in one or two houses on a block or even light up an entire row of houses -- a collaborative effort.

Some, like the Schmidts', are electric. Others are battery-operated. A sensor that allows for automatic dusk-to-dawn operation is one option. Whatever style you choose, always follow safety instructions.

Cindy Schmidt, whose home has been featured in the East Aurora Holiday Tour of Homes, prefers an electric window candle with a weighted base and bracket for added stability.

Window candles have a long tradition, including dating back to the times of religious persecution in Ireland.

"During Christmas, every faithful Irish Catholic family hoped to have a priest visit their home so that they could receive the sacraments and in return offer him hospitality," according to an article on the Catholic Education Resource Center website.

Candles in the window were a signal to a priest that he was welcome and would be safe. A single candle might appear in several windows, or three candles in one window, one each representing Jesus, Mary and Joseph, writes the Rev. William Saunders, noting that the custom of candles in the window was brought to America by the Irish immigrants.

Window candles came to a newly restored Colonial Williamsburg, Va., in the 1930s. Kenneth Chorley, the Colonial Williamsburg president, was looking for an idea for special outdoor Christmas decorations (nothing too garish!), even though no evidence existed that Virginia's early colonists decorated the outside of their homes for the holidays.

"He heard what sounded like a good old-fashioned idea from Boston's Beacon Hill: the placement of a single lighted candle in every window," write Libbey Hodges Oliver and Mary Miley Theobald in "Williamsburg Christmas" (Abrams, $24.95).

"The colonists called it 'illumination' and the practice was historically correct -- illuminations did occur during the colonial era, often in conjunction with fireworks and bonfires to commemorate a royal milestone or important battle," the authors explain.

Though this "illumination" had not historically been associated with Christmas, most people liked the idea and it was approved as a decoration -- with a form of electrified candles soon appearing on the scene, followed years later by battery-operated ones.

Through the years, people have used candles in the window for many purposes -- including as a symbol of hospitality, warmth, help, remembrance, love and hope -- often for a loved one away from home.

It's a tradition that lives on.


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