Easter Reminders of Christ the Light
The History and Symbolism of the Paschal Candle
FLAME OF FAITH. The company’s Christus Rex candle is shown. Courtesy of Cathedral Candle Co.
The Easter vigil on Holy Saturday brings the light of the risen Christ into the world. The Paschal candle is lit from the new fire and processed down the church aisle to shine radiantly next to the pulpit throughout the Easter season.
Most likely, your parish’s candle was crafted at Cathedral Candle Co.
For 119 years — and still at its original location on the north side of Syracuse, N.Y. — Cathedral Candle (CathedralCandle.com) has been making Paschal, liturgical and devotional candles for Catholic churches across the United States — now also used by some other denominations — since Jacob Steigerwald emigrated from Bavaria to found the company in 1897.
“The Paschal candle is a beautiful symbol of Christ and makes a dramatic statement,” said Mark Steigerwald, the company’s vice president and the founder’s great-grandson.
He observed how the Paschal candle is such an integral part of the Easter vigil, adding that Cathedral Candle also makes the individual Easter tapers that the worshippers light from the Paschal candle and use for the renewal of baptismal promises during the vigil. “It’s a wonderful thing to see an entire congregation and the church lit up from the one Christ candle, the Paschal candle.”
“As late as 1950, all that was available were two designs,” said Steigerwald. Paschal candles were either plain or ornamented, with separate pieces of colored wax pressed onto the candle. The key elements in every Paschal candle are the cross, the Alpha and Omega and the year.
More detailed designs came in the 1950s.
Then, in the 1970s, a heavier cast wax without a decal was introduced. The first Paschal candle using this technique was called “Christ Victorious,” and it is still available. Today, Cathedral Candle has more than 200 variations, mixing or matching sizes and ornamentation.
Beeswax is required for candles in churches. While, traditionally, candles were always 100% beeswax for liturgical use, in recent decades, the requirements have changed so that only the greater part must be beeswax. Therefore, many are 51% beeswax.
Pure beeswax is pricier but burns longer and gives an enhanced flame that the entire congregation can see, noted Steigerwald. “The wax represents Jesus’ body, the wick represents his soul, and the flame his divinity,” he explained. That explanation goes back to St. Anselm. “All these symbols enhance our faith.”
“The quality of liturgical appointments enhance one’s faith,” he added. “It’s not what our faith is built on, but it enhances it.”
“The significance of the Paschal candle is nothing less than cosmic,” Benedictine Father Kurt Belsole, director of liturgical formation at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, explained.
“Life out of death, minds made pure, and festivities of unending splendor are themes that the Paschal candle symbolizes, not just in the Easter night, but also throughout the Easter season, at baptism and at Christian funerals,” he observed. “All of Christian life must be seen in light of these themes.”
Father Belsole described how “the cosmic dimension of the candle becomes even more evident in the preparation of the candle.” The priest cuts a vertical line on the candle, followed by a horizontal line; then an Alpha and an Omega are added, followed by the numbers of the year. The priest prays: “Christ, yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega: All time belongs to him, and all the ages, to him be glory and power, through every age forever. Amen.”
Father Belsole also made clear that in blessing the new fire from which the Paschal candle is lit, “the priest prays that by the Paschal celebrations we may be so inflamed with heavenly desires: that with minds made pure, we may attain festivities of unending splendor.”
At the Easter vigil and at every sacred liturgy beginning with Mass, candles besides the Paschal candle play a very important role. As Father Belsole said, “They are concrete symbols and reminders of Christ the Light.”
“[T]hese candles need always to remind us of Christ’s victory of light over darkness, the victory of good over evil, the victory of the Lord of Light over the prince of darkness; and, finally, they must remind us of the very freedom of the children of God,” he explained, “because light, not darkness, has definitively triumphed in the Paschal mystery of Christ’s saving passion, death and resurrection.”
Steigerwald emphasized that, as the Church year progresses, “The visible candle burns down as a sacrifice itself.”
Family and Faith
Cathedral Candle crafts candles in the original part of the factory Jacob Steigerwald built in his backyard, but the factory has expanded with needed additions over the years.
“We want to be a stable, anchoring presence here in the residential neighborhood,” Mark Steigerwald explained. The same is true of the family presence. Cathedral Candle has always been owned and operated by the Steigerwalds. After Jacob, his two sons, Carl and Louis Sr., took the helm. Next came Louis Sr.’s son, Louis Jr., the father of Mark and his brother Louis III, the current company president. Louis IV is now with the company, and John Hogan, Carl’s grandson, is director of human resources.
The same holds true for employees. “We have fourth-generation employees, husband-and-wife employees — a long history of families,” Steigerwald said. Because the company remains in a residential neighborhood, there is a long history of employees walking to work from their homes. Even today, 50% walk to work, he noted. “That is what we always considered our strength.”
Faith is made visible at the factory, from the crucifixes displayed to the two statues of the Blessed Mother, the photo of Mother Teresa being presented with a candle from Cathedral Candle and a 100-year-old lithograph of St. Joseph holding the Baby Jesus that first hung above Jacob’s desk. Said Steigerwald, “St. Joseph was always considered the patron saint of the candle makers’ guild.”
Many of the jobs are very craft-oriented. Some of that work is carried out on several machines dating back to 1897 and built to the founder’s directions. They never wear out because wax is non-abrasive. There is also a high-volume production facility for making devotional candles.
“Yet we still apply 24-carat gold leaf to ornament liturgical candles by hand, whether the Paschal candles or some that were used during the Holy Father’s visit,” Steigerwald said.
“We prepared candles for the Holy Father’s recent visit to the United States, except for one venue.” It was an “honor” and “a great source of joy” for the employees to see their candles being used for the visit, he said.
Domenica Oliveri, who is in charge of the decorating department, was “so excited” to spot the candles she had decorated during the papal visit. She has been doing decorative work — the candle ornamentation is all done by hand — for 20 years and is a master at her craft. Told she’s very artistic, she answered, “That’s what Mark says!”
Looking back at her work, Oliveri said, “I love it. I see all of the beautiful decorating for church, and I love it. It’s like working for the Lord.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.
Paschal candles that are not completely burned down or consumed by the end of the year, before it’s time for the next Easter vigil to come, are, or can be, returned to a dealer, who then returns them to Cathedral Candle Co., where they are melted down and come to “life again” in new candles: a quite reverential way to treat these liturgical candles.
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