Candles are both practical and symbolic.
Candles are both practical and symbolic.

Candles and flames are common symbols across many religions. Their uses and meanings — both symbolic and practical — vary from faith to faith and person to person, as does the history of their various traditional uses.

Traditional Lighting

Flame is one of mankind’s oldest and most powerful symbols, traced back to primitive days by the campfire, used to prepare food and as a light source to eliminate darkness. As such, many religions from around the world use candles — small, easily controlled flames — in rituals and ceremonies for both their symbolic and practical values.

Judaism

Menorahs comemmorate an ancient miracle.
Menorahs comemmorate an ancient miracle.

The most prominent Jewish use of candles takes place during Hanukkah, during which a nine-branched candelabrum is lit on eight successive nights to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Talmud, olive oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, but there was only enough to burn for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, enough time for more oil to be prepared. Jews around the world light ritual candles during Hanukkah in remembrance of this miracle.

Christianity

In comparison to other religions, the Christian religion took more time to adopt the ritual use of candles. New Testament references to lights, such as those found in Acts 7, are typically practical in nature, being used for illumination at night. Lights on the alter gradually took on a symbolic importance in the Middle Ages, as instituted in the Ordines Romani, or Roman Orders, which governed church liturgy. Likewise, the Medieval period saw the widespread adoption of votive candles, smaller candles, lit in church grottos or occasionally upon alters as a part of the prayer ritual. While most strongly associated with Roman Catholicism, many Protestant churches have maintained votive candles for their beauty and symbolic values. The Eastern Orthodox faiths use votive candles in a similar manner, lighting them in front of icons to commemorate individual saints or Biblical events. Both Roman and Orthodox Catholicism, as well as some Protestant sects, also make use of paschal candles, larger candles lit to commemorate Easter services or baptisms.

Other Faiths and Traditions

Kwanzaa celebrations involve a Kinara.
Kwanzaa celebrations involve a Kinara.

Candles make appearances in the offerings and prayers of other faiths. Some Hindus occasionally use candles as altar offerings as part of daily puja, or ritual practices. Likewise, some Buddhists place candles before shrines or statues of the Buddha as a sign of respect, often alongside offerings of food or drink. The African American holiday of Kwanzaa uses a candelabrum called a Kinara to commemorate the values embodied in the holiday. Neo-Pagan and Afro-Caribbean religions use candles slightly different, as components in spell work in order to channel the needed energy toward a given task.