Candles have been used as symbols for eons. They occur in Shakespeare, the Torah, and Ancient Rome. In fact, it was the ancient Romans who came up with the idea of using beeswax to create candles.
They exist in nearly every religion and cultural group in one form or another – from Jewish Shabbat candles to Chinese fishing paper lanterns.
And despite the fact we no longer need candles in our lives for practical purposes, we still choose to use them during birthdays, in mourning, and during religious celebrations.
So, we decided to take a look at all the different meanings we ascribe to candles. We’ve dug up examples from religion, literature, film, and popular culture. It seems from our research that candles derive their symbolism directly from their features: namely, soft light and warmth.
The Symbolism of Candles
Candles are often used as a way to develop a romantic atmosphere. They cast a very soft light over a room and the flickering of the light creates a twinkling effect that many people would find comforting and calming. Furthermore, modern candles let off soft scents and even act as aphrodisiacs. Hence, a man hoping to woo a woman might prepare a “candle lit dinner” to get her into the romantic mood.
2. Comfort & Relaxation
Candles might also be lit to simply create a comfortable and relaxing environment. You might light candles to relax while in the bath. Similarly, if you go for a massage or a spa retreat, you’ll likely find candles flickering in the corner. Just like in the romance example above, the softness of the light that candles cast can also create a relaxing environment. The candles also cast a much warmer light than typical lightbulbs in a house. That warm light – much like the light of a campfire – creates a relaxing and comforting ambiance.
3. Hope, Faith and Persistence
Candles are often used as a symbol of ongoing hope and faith. The Olympic flame burns eternally as a symbol of faith in the world coming together as one. The saying “an old flame” refers to a love that continues to burn after years of separations. And when someone goes missing, we will often put candles out on our porch as a sign of hope that they will find their way home. So long as the candle burns, our faith remains in tact.
Similarly, a candlelight vigil might take place as a symbol that a cause will continue in the face of adversity. The vigil is a sign of both remembrance and continuation all at once, in a word: persistence. This is perhaps best represented in the scene of the candlelight vigil in the film Milk (2008) which commemorates the lives of Milk and Moscone who were murdered by a homophobic gunman:
As the people walk down the street holding their candles, the voiceover reads:
…so that the young child and the thousands just like him will have hope for a better life. Hope for a better tomorrow.
4. Guidance (Light in the Darkness)
It was Shakespeare who write:
“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
In this quote, as with many other situations (think of Bilbo Baggins following the candle light in the cave, for example), Shakespeare uses the candle as a symbol of guidance. The candle pierces the darkness and, while delicate and small, it can cast away darkness and show us the way to happier times.
5. Life (and Life after Death)
Religions are constantly using candles. Perhaps most iconic is the Jewish menorah. Among other things, the Menorah symbolizes the creation in seven days – each day being represented by a light. Here, the lights could be interpreted as the lord alighting our world and our souls.
Similarly, candles are lit in memorium of people who have died. We place candles at vigils and light candles for deceased loved ones in church. Here, the candle can represent the continuation of life after death – the light of the candle indicating that the life of the spirit has not died; only the physical body has died.
Candles have many, many meanings. But they seem to tap into something spiritual within us. They’re there are times of sadness as well as celebration – such as birthday parties, Christmas and weddings. They’re used for romance, relaxation and remembrance. And it seems we look to candles with a general positive association.