Holiday lights: Candles illuminate many religious, cultural celebrations

Whether it’s a Hanukkah menorah, a twinkling Christmas tree or the Kwanzaa Kinara, it’s that time of year when we most appreciate and welcome light. Many of our religious and cultural traditions trace their roots back thousands of years to light-filled celebrations of the Winter Solstice that marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

We’re visiting with some folks in the Miami Valley who are celebrating their holidays this year surrounded by the warm glow of candlelight. The lights help promote storytelling, togetherness and community.


Jewish families around the globe gathered around their menorahs Sunday night to kindle the first of eight Hanukkah candles. The joyous holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, celebrates religious freedom and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times. An additional candle is lit each night until the final night when all eight candles are glowing.

Among those lighting the menorah tonight will be the Solovey family of Centerville. “The last two years have been hard as we’ve all learned to live with COVID and adapted, and then adapted again to all of the changes that have come with the pandemic,” says Katie Solovey. " I think this time of year, more than ever, we are looking for light. Light at the end of the tunnel, light in the midst of a lot of darkness and light to offer us hope that brighter days are ahead of us.”

Growing up, Solovey celebrated Christmas with her family and candles were always part of the celebration. “They lined the dining room table as we gathered together on Christmas Eve and my mom always had candles lit on Christmas morning as we opened presents,” she recalls.

Now, after converting to Judaism, candles take on a different meaning. “Since moving back to Ohio in 2019, candles and light have brought my family together this time of year,” she notes. " We now celebrate each other’s holidays, which at their very core are about family and hope.”

This year on Hanukkah, the Solovey family and friends will gather at Katie’s house to light candles, eat latkes (potato pancakes) and donuts, and share the story of Hanukkah. “The Jewish people only had enough oil for one night, but it miraculously lasted for eight,” says Katie. “As we add candles to our menorah for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, we’re reminded of that miracle and how light gives us hope even on our darkest days.”


Kelly S. Johnson, a University of Dayton professor of religious studies, says candles and light play important roles around Advent and Christmas.

The wreath tradition is a relatively recent development designed to help visualize the period of preparation before Christmas. “In the United States many Christians, including all Catholics, use the wreaths in church services and often at home as well,” says Johnson.

The special wreath is made up of evergreens and at least four candles-- three purple and one pink-- symbolizing hope, love, joy and peace.

Tina and Chris Nieport of Belmont enjoy observing the tradition with their four sons. “Lighting the candles on our family’s Advent wreath serves as a simple reminder of what the light of the candle represents: Love Incarnate coming into our dark world, and how we are to strive to be that love as well,” Tina says. “Each week, we get to light an additional candle as a sort of crescendo of excitement, as we wait in joyful hope for Christmas.”

In some Christian traditions the idea of light overcoming darkness is often celebrated through a sunrise service.

Though it is not commonly celebrated in the United States, Johnson says the feast of St. Lucia--or Lucy--on Dec. 13 --makes use of candles. “Before the Gregorian reform of the calendar in the 16th century, the solstice fell around her feast day, and since Lucy also means light, customs including candles grew up around her feast,” she notes. " The oldest daughter of the house serves everyone treats while wearing a wreath with four white candles lit on it.

Many Western Christmas traditions are pagan in origin. The Christmas tree, for example, traces its roots to the Yule Tree, and was originally decorated with candles. Some people use a Yule Log as a table centerpiece and candleholder.


When it’s time for Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, Ravi Khanna and his family light lamps both inside and outside their Springfield home. “We also light simple firecrackers to express our joy,” he says. “In Hinduism light represents the removal of Darkness of Ignorance within us, so we can gain Knowledge of Truth. It also represents Victory of good over evil.”

Diwali generally falls in October or November and is also celebrated in Jainism and Sikhism.

The 50 Hindu families who live in Springfield look forward to gathering together at one family’s home to enjoy dinner and sweets, pray and jointly burn simple firecrackers. “Some of us go to the Beavercreek Hindu Temple where priests do special worship and prayer for Diwali,” says KhannaI.

For the past 30 years, the Hindu community of Springfield has invited the larger community to celebrate Diwali with a cultural show of classical and Bollywood-style dancing. " Due to the pandemic we could not do it for the last two years but our local American friends tell us that they miss it!”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has signed House Bill 172 which will permit the use of consumer-grade fireworks for select holidays and holiday weekends including Diwali.


The newest of the winter holidays, Kwanzaa, originated in 1966 when Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and the chair of Black Studies at California State University, created a celebration honoring African-American history and culture. The holiday lasts from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

Kwanzaa’s celebrants light seven colored candles during the seven day celebration. Rev. Crystal Walker, the executive director of Greater Dayton Christian Connections, explains the candles are synonymous with the powers of the sun as African traditions believe that all life comes from the powerful rays of the sun.

“African American Churches in Dayton as well as the Africana Council of Elders celebrate this tradition with the lighting of the seven candles,” she says. “There are three red, three green and one black candle.” The black candle represents all people of black descent and brings together the unity of family, community, custom and race.

Kwanzaa candles are lit in a similar manner to Hanukkah; each night, another candle is lit on the Kinara (candleholder). Each candle represents one principle of the Nguzo Saba, which is Swahili for “Seven Principles.”

“I felt happy and proud as I explained each principle to my granddaughter and passed this information down,” says Linda Gillispie of Clayton. " She looks forward to participating and celebrating Kwanzaa every year with the whole family.

Interfaith organizations

If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating traditions of other faiths or communities, there are local organizations that will welcome you.

Judy Heller, an active member of The Interfaith Forum of Dayton, has been involved with interfaith dialogues since her college days. “In a diverse country such as the United States, I believe that interfaith dialogue is as crucial for understanding our neighbors and co-workers as anything else,” says the Oakwood woman. “When I moved back to Dayton, friends of my parents who were involved in what was then the Dayton Trialogue suggested that I might enjoy their programs.”

Heller found the first meeting both intellectually interesting and full of people who were warm and welcoming. “Approximately 10 years ago we became The Interfaith Forum of Greater Dayton and opened up our programs and membership to all religious traditions,” she says.

These interfaith organizations are free and open to the public.

The Interfaith Forum hosts programs that range from discussions about different perspectives and traditions regarding God, coming-of-age rituals and mourning practices to seeking common ground around social justice concerns on racial equality and the environment. It welcomes those of every religion and can be reached on Facebook at Interfaith Forum of Greater Dayton.

The Christian and Jews Dialog Group has been ongoing for more than 25 years. Its function is fellowship and the exchange of religious and spiritual ideas with the object of strengthening each of us in these areas. The group is open to anyone of any religion. It meets once a month for lunch at a local restaurant. For more information, contact Joel Shapiro at

The Ladies Interfaith Network

Women of different religious groups come together monthly in an informal, interactive session designed to break down barriers, to learn about and understand each other, to foster good relations and to strengthen community ties. After a meal, which members bring and share, representatives from three faiths tackle a designated theme. Small discussion groups follow. The organization is currently meeting virtually on Zoom and the next session is slated for Jan. 19 ( “Moses in our Traditions,”) and Feb. 14 (“Stories of Love in Our Traditions.”) The group hopes to get back to meeting in various houses of worship in the spring. If you’d like to be added to the mailing list, contact

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