Occasionally, people ask if there is a "proper" order in which to light the candles on the altar. Some insisting that there is only one way to do this. They usually say that the "correct" way to do this is to light the six major candles starting from the middle and moving first toward the right or "Epistle" side, then return to the middle and light from the center to the left or "Gospel" side. In snuffing the candles, the order is reversed. So they tell us, "The Gospel candle never burns alone." In fact, this practice belongs to the Roman Rite, although some Dominican provinces, such as the American Eastern Province adopted it.
But in the traditional Dominican Rite a different order was normally used and continued to be used, even after the adoption of the New Rite of Roman Mass by the Order in 1970. This order for lighting is not specified in any official ritual book of the order, which simply tell the number of candles and when to light them. Fr. Bonniwell, in this Dominican Altar Boys' Manual and his Dominican Ceremonial for Mass and Benediction, both products of the Eastern Province, simply gives the Roman way. But historically there was another way.
In the Dominican way, the candle on the far Gospel side is lighted first, then each candle in order across the altar to the Epistle side. They are snuffed in the opposite order. Thus the "Gospel Candle" burns first and longest, very suitable as the Gospel is the "Light of the World." You can see an acolyte at our Western Dominican Province House of Studies in about 1958 in the photo to the right. He is lighting the candles in the Dominican fashion: starting from the left he has already lighted the first candle and is lighting the second. You can tell that the feast was either a Double or Full Double (in the language of 1962 a First or Second Class Feast) because the acolyte is wearing alb, amice, and cinture: the Dominican Rite practice on major feasts.
The Dominican books do give explicit instructions on the number of candles to be used at Mass. This rubric is a beautiful example of the Dominican love of "progressive solemnity." The rule (Caeremoniale S.O.P. nn. 514-17) is: Six candles for solemn feasts at Mass, Matins, and Vespers, but four candles at Compline; Four Candles for mid-ranked feasts at Mass and Office, but only two at Compline; and finally, two candles at Mass and Office on ferias and lesser feasts, and the same two at Compline. Private Masses always have just two candles, no matter what the level of the feast.
A similar ranking governs the number of "Sanctus Candles" that are lighted from the Sanctus until the Purification of the vessels. These are placed in single, double, or triple branched candlesticks flanking the altar: three candles on each side on major feasts, two on each side on mid-ranked feasts, and one on each side on ferias and minor feasts. One candle, on the Epistle side, is used at Private Mass.
Another interesting practice was not to fill the altar gradines up with multiple candles sticks for different numbers of candles. Rather the six large candle sticks were the only ones used, and only the number of candles needed were lighted. Which ones to light was dependent on which candles had burned the lowest and were shortest. In the flanking photograph you can see Fr. Hilary John Martin, O.P., now professor emeritus at our Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology saying the conventual Low Mass during Passiontide in 1954. You can tell it is Passiontide because of the statue veils and the lack of an antependium. Two altar candles are lighted as is proper for a feria -- and notice that they are the two tallest ones and so need to burn down to match the others. You can see the Epistle side "Sanctus Candle" (lighted, so this is after the Sanctus); the Gospel side "Sanctus Candle" cannot be seen in this photo. The server properly wears the surplice (under his capuce since he is not ordained) since this is a public Mass. Were this a Private Mass, he would be wearing the cappa (the black cape that is part of our habit).
I thank Bro. Raymond Bertheaux, O.P., a cooperator brother of our province with over 50 years of service, for help with this posting.