The custom of lighting candles or rush-lights in honour of the Twelve Apostles is traditionally carried out by families on Twelfth Night, which is observed on the fifth or sixth of January.* The number of candles used in this ritual varied between one district and another, with some areas lighting twelve candles to represent the Twelve Apostles, while in other areas a thirteenth candle, usually larger and generally placed in the centre of the original twelve, was added to represent Jesus. Whilst the candles melted prayers and decades of the rosary were recited by those present. Traditionally each member of the family lit one candle, the flame of which was said to signify that person’s longevity. In this way the first candle to burn out was supposed to indicate the member of the household who was destined to be the first to die.
In the old days, when candlesticks were scarce, candles were stabilised in a bed of ashes, cow-dung, mud, or even graveyard clay, while sieves of oats were used, for the same purpose, at least in County Westmeath at the end of the seventeenth century. Once the candles had consumed themselves a ball would be made of what remained, if the candles were supported using cow-dung the ball was placed above the door of the cow-house to encourage an increase in the herd of cattle for the coming year, while if the ball was made of mud or clay it was often placed above the main entrance of the home, where it was believed to protect the inhabitants till the next Twelfth Night.
*In Ireland, and indeed internationally, there is some contention as to when Twelfth Night falls, with some observing Twelfth Night traditions on the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, 5 January, while for others the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January is believed to be the proper date.
Danaher, Kevin. The Year in Ireland. Dublin 1972.
Duncan, Leland L. ‘Further Notes from County Leitrim.’ Folklore 5, no. 3 (1894), pp. 177-211.
Mason, William Shaw. A Statistical Account or Parochial Survey of Ireland. Dublin, London and Edinburgh, 1814-19.
Piers, Sir Henry, A Chorographical Description of the County of West-Meath, 1682
Wilde, Lady Jane, Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions, London 1890.