It’s remarkable how many candles I receive as gifts. I bet you do too. The National Candle Association estimates we spend over $3 billion annually on candle products in the U.S. alone.
Luckily, as someone who preaches at an interspecies “church-ish” and teaches at an interfaith seminary, I have a lot of reasons to burn candles. And yet, I admit that―with the notable exceptions of Hanukkah or when teaching meditation―I often light candles without much thought for their spiritual fire.
Interestingly, it was studying Wicca that increased my reverence for light-bearing. Further, I learned about the usefulness of candle-burning as a spiritual practice.
A Brief History of Candles for Spiritual Fire
Although early linkages between candle-lighting and spirituality are imprecise, evidence appears in ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous practices.
While necessarily reductionist, here’s a quick overview of some uses of spiritual fire today:
- Candles are integral to many Christian prayer rituals, the flame signifying Christ and the smoke carrying prayers to God (the latter appropriated from pagan beliefs).
- Zoroastrians revere fire as the highest expression of divinity, Ahura Mazda.
- Light ushers in the Jewish Shabbat and is extinguished when the workweek begins anew.
- Candles adorn Buddhist shrines as symbols of respect and reverence.
- India explodes in light for Diwali, visible even from airplanes.
- Humanists use candles to symbolize reason.
- And for many, light beckons peace.
It would not be a far stretch to suggest that lighting candles for spiritual fire plays a role in every religion and philosophical tradition practiced around the world.
Tips for Keeping Candles Healthy For All
In the 21st century, we’ve become more astute about the dark side of this love of light. Some helpful tips to lessen health risks and avoid threatening the fragile habitats of other beings:
- Avoid ingredients ambiguously labeled “fragrance.” Instead, look for essential oil-based products, or scent your candles yourself (more on this below). Commercially scented candles may increase the risk for some cancers and other health concerns.
- Avoid animal products. Early candles were often created by killing domesticated animals. Then massive whale hunting provided light power for the industrial revolution. In fact, by the 1900s, whale populations were so depleted that widespread legal protections had to be enacted. Let’s face it, burning animal fat lacks compassion and doesn’t smell good anyway.
- Be planet-friendly. Unfortunately, animal-free candles aren’t devoid of problems. For example, paraffin comes from crude oil or shale. Look instead for 100 percent plant-based waxes made from rice, soy, rapeseed, or palm oil. But be choosy here, too. Make sure your candles are created with sustainability and biodiversity in mind.
- Don’t Exploit. While some people swear by beeswax, those of us keen on avoiding exploiting other creatures will steer clear, opting for rapeseed candles instead. Fields of rapeseed offer nectar and pollen, which help bees thrive. Likewise, look for fair-trade labels on imported candles to ensure your purchase doesn’t exploit humans through forced labor and other unfair practices.
- Don’t inhale. Even when we keep all of the above in mind, lighting a candle still releases a small amount of particulate matter into the air around us, which can cause throat and upper respiratory tract irritation. So make sure you use candles in well-ventilated spaces, and don’t place your face directly over one. Finally, don’t forget that particulates can be problematic for pets, who have smaller lungs.
Whew, okay, that was beginning to sound like the end of a pharmaceutical TV commercial, wasn’t it? All kidding aside, what we use is as important as how we use it. So, it’s crucial to keep our spiritual tools as cruelty-free, planet-friendly, and human-healthy as possible.
A Spiritual Fire Ritual for Happiness
The Wiccan tradition I was trained in holds that candles are useful because they provide a physical connection to the element of fire. Since the fire element corresponds to wills and desires, a candle becomes a working tool to focus our attention and intention.
[Read: “Elemental Wisdom Part 4: Fire.”]
To hone my craft, my Wicca teacher suggested Raymond Buckland’s classic guide Practical Candleburning Rituals. Buckland proposes that candle-burning has prehistoric roots in what's known as sympathetic magick, including the belief that “like attracts like.” The book offers twenty-eight rituals in two different styles, Old Religion and Christian. Practitioners are encouraged to mix and match these styles, always aspiring to the “ideal of using your own words—words from the heart.”
I appreciate his approach, as it avoids placing Christian and pagan religions in opposition. (There’s no denying the long history of fighting between people identifying as Christian with those in other traditions, and these harms need to be acknowledged. Yet, placing them in opposition rarely leads to healing age-old divides.)
Taking Buckland’s words to heart, I built upon his roots, adapting an age-old ritual to suit my spiritually rebellious sensibilities. First, I added a dash of aromatherapy. Then, I tossed in a bit of meditation and mettā. Finally, I added a hefty dose of interspecies compassion in the hope of increasing happiness in the entire world.
Spiritual Fire Ritual in 12 Steps
- Choose your time. This is not the type of ritual to squeeze in before breakfast or after a long workday. Instead, select your time carefully so that you can be in the right frame of mind to be thorough and intentional.
- Choose your tools. Buckland’s classic ritual includes seven candles in specific colors. Admittedly, there are many different schools of thought on candle colors; what’s important is the intention with which we practice, not being rigid about our tools or their colors. (But, of course, feel free to disagree!)
- Cleanse. It’s traditional to take a quick dip in salted water before candle work, both to connect to the sacred element of water and to release negative energy.
- Assemble your space. Ideally, you’ll need a small table in a well-ventilated area that is safe from kiddos and animals. You may want to place an image of a sage or spiritual guide who is meaningful to you on this altar. Or place down earthy items that you feel called to include.
- Dress the candles. “Always rub in the same direction, from the center out to one end, then from the center out to the other end,” Buckland suggests. And I suggest rubbing your candles with a bit of happiness-inducing oil
such as bergamot, mandarin, or lemon. (Note: If you are pregnant, check with your healthcare practitioner before using undiluted essential oils.)
- Place your tools. I stick to Buckland’s classic formation for placing candles, as it makes intuitive sense. Place two tall white altar candles on your surface’s rear left and right. In the center, place a candle to represent yourself. Directly in front of and behind this candle, in a line facing perpendicular to your body, place two candles to symbolize those you want to bring happiness. To the left and right of the “me” candle, place two candles representing the energy of happiness.
- Get quiet. Sit before your altar. Choose to set aside worry and hurriedness. Spend a few minutes attuning to the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Notice any other living beings or natural life present. Observe your breathing. Attune your attention and intention.
- Light it up. When you feel ready, light the candles in the following order. First, the white candles to hold the space. Next, the “me” candle. Speak these words: Here I stand. May I be happy. Focus deeply inside yourself for a few minutes.
- Share happiness. Now, light the candles representing the others on your altar. These can be humans or animals. (Indeed, manatees and chickens were the focus of my last happiness ritual!) Envision these beings in your mind’s eye. Speak: Here stand [name] and [name]. May they be happy.
- Spread out. Finally, envision the front left and right candles to be filled with happiness energy in its purest and most concentrated form. Lighting each, envision happiness radiating to the symbols of these beings. Speak: Happiness flows toward me. Happiness flows to [name] and [name]. Happiness envelops all beings, everywhere.
- Just sit. As you sit for a few more minutes, gazing at the candles, feel and radiate happiness from the depths of your being.
- Thank happiness. Thank happiness for being present, then extinguish the flames in the reverse order of their lighting.
Note: In his classic version of a happiness ritual, Buckland suggests candle-lighting should be done three days in a row, moving the side candles closer to the center each time until they finally touch the center candle.
So, You Lit and Extinguished a Spiritual Fire…
Now, go relax. And hands off your email and social media feeds for at least an hour. Avoid calling the folks you included in your ritual to ask them, “Hey! Are you feeling happy today?”
Does calling on spiritual fire with a candle-lighting ritual “work” for you? As with any practice, the answer will appear in your experience.
Want more Wiccan-ish inspiration? Learn about Embracing Enchantment.