According to Jewish tradition, mourners light a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
I have adapted and embellished that tradition. I light a candle on my husband’s death date and on his birth date, too. This year his birthday caught me unprepared. I was out of yarhzeit candles (short white memorial candles in a glass) that are hard to find in Las Cruces. In desperation, I went into my folklore room that contains many tall decorative votive candles. I considered the Virgin of Guadalupe, but that had been burned down too far.
Suddenly, I found the perfect candle: Powerful Protection from P.M.S. The candle had a prayer for keeping water retention and bloating at bay. It also included a petition to ensure a steady supply of Chocolate and Ibuprofen, AMEN.
That seemed to be the ideal candle for the occasion. Because Harold had a wicked sense of humor, I knew he would have enjoyed the irony of a PMS candle.
PMS votive candle to prevent cramping and other symptoms. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Ordinarily, lighting candles occurs on solemn occasions: Customarily, Orthodox Jewish women light two candles on Friday nights, the eve of the Sabbath. Lighting the Sabbath candles has a particular order. The woman often wears something on her head, covers her eyes with her hands and recites a blessing in Hebrew that translates: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath light. Additionally, some women wind their hands three times around the Sabbath candles before reciting the blessing.
Andrea Dresser lighting the Sabbath candles. Note that her head is covered. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Andrea Dresser covering her eyes as she recites the Sabbath Candle lighting prayer. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Fire, via burning candles, is a pan-cultural event. Any ritual worth its salt, religious or secular, has candlelight: at a wedding ceremony; at a romantic dinner; at Hanukkah; during Kwanzaa.
Multicultural ritual candles: left to right in back: Kwanzaa; Seven African Powers; luminaria; Hanukkah candles. Foreground, Buddhist lotus candle: Jewish yarhrzeit (memorial) candle. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Check out the ritual candles depicted in the above photograph: for Kwanzaa, an African American holiday between Christmas and New Years with candle colors of red, black, green. The first night, one candle is lit and on subsequent nights additional candles are lit until all seven are kindled. Similarly, during Hanukkah the Jewish Festival of Lights, late November or December. eight multicolored candles burn, one for each night until the final night when all are aglow
Luminarias, common to the Southwest, are lit candles placed inside paper bags. They appear outdoors at night on the days leading up to Christmas and represent the illuminated pathway of Mary and Joseph.
The pink lotus is a powerful Buddhist symbol and in candle form is commonly found on Buddhist altars, in temples, in homes, and places of business owned by Buddhists. The lotus represents the progress of the soul, coming out of the muddy roots of materialism blossoming into the sunshine of enlightenment.
The tall votive candle, with its roots in Africa, is a petition to the seven African powers or orishas that is used by various Caribbean religions in the U.S. and in the West Indies. By lighting the candle one may petition the gods to provide for physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
And no birthday party is complete without the burning candles on the birthday cake that honorees must extinguish with one breath in order to make a birthday wish come true.
Happy Birthday to You; Happy Birthday to You; You Look Like a Monkey, and You Act Like one, Too.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who enjoys lighting ritual candles.