Travel through South Central Pennsylvania after dark, and you’ll see houses adorned with candles, one candle in every window. At first glance you might think they’re Christmas decorations if you’re traveling in December, or maybe they’re Christmas decorations that should have been taken down, if it’s not December. No, window candles are a year-round tradition among the PA Dutch.
I should clarify: these aren’t wax candles; they’re electric candles, and many houses in the area are outfitted with window electrical sockets, often with a ‘candle switch’ located by the front door. Our house has a candle switch.
I can remember helping my grandmother turn her candles on each evening during overnight stays. Her house didn’t have a candle switch, but it was old enough that it had push button switches. Each candle bulb needed to be screwed in to light the candle. Come to think of it, a candle switch wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.
But what do the candles mean? Why do we do it? PA Dutch don’t do anything for no reason, and window candles are no different. They aren’t just ‘for pretty.’
Candles in the window signify an offer of sanctuary, a place to sleep and food in the morning. No matter what time it is, or why the reason, if candles burn in the windows, the door is open.
I’d love to know where the tradition originated. Maybe it began with the Moravians in Bethlehem PA, or maybe it’s a remnant of the Underground Railroad. No one seems to know, or at least no one I’ve spoken to knows. It doesn’t matter; I know the reason we burn candles in our windows.
What customs of hospitality do you practice?