Of all the ways to decorate a room, nothing says romance like the light of a flickering candle. It adds ambiance and drama to even the simplest of rooms, imparting a sense of occasion, and a reminder that home is more than just a roof over your head. Home is a sanctuary, an oasis of repose.
For me there has always been something magical about candlelight that transforms the mundane world into one of enchantment and mystery. Fire mesmerizes the senses, dispels the gloom, and warms the heart. Candles are a must around the house this time of year during those long, dark winter nights; candles turn a cold winter’s eve into a cozy respite.
Since the dawn of time fire has had this power to chase away the darkness, its untamed presence burning brightly in first our campfires and later on our hearths. Once tamed to the torch and wick, fire transformed our homes into places of warmth, illuminated our cities, and brought merriment to our celebrations.
Prior to the advent of electricity candles were necessities of course. Today it’s hard to imagine how difficult tasks were to perform once the sun set. Reading, sewing, knitting, writing, and cooking was all done by firelight.
Although archeologists have found evidence of candleholders in Egyptian tombs, it was the ancient Romans who were credited with the first wick candles by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly into tallow or beeswax. Tallow, rendered animal fat, smelled foul and smoked horribly, creating black soot that soon darkened walls and ceilings. The Chinese molded candles in rice paper tubes, using rolled rice paper as wicks and wax gleaned from insects. In India, the first scented candles were made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree.
Since tallow was readily available, it became the common household candle of medieval Europe. Candle making evolved into a guild craft and trained candlemakers traveled from house to house making candles from the kitchen fats saved for this purpose. Beeswax candles, which defied molds and so had to be formed by hand, were highly prized and generally the provenance of the wealthy and the Church. The Catholic Church valued beeswax so much that parishioners could pay their yearly tithes with beeswax.
By the 14th century candle lanterns lit city streets at night. The town crier was tasked with keeping candles lit and wicks trimmed while announcing the hours.
Colonists brought their candlemaking skills to America where the art of candle making was handed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Families and friends often gathered together to prepare a year’s worth or more. The average Colonial family of four burned 200-400 candles annually. Given that this was a time consuming, laborious, and smelly task, women soon learned to pool their resources. Even then candles created a social event.
Women also discovered that boiling the fruit of the bayberry yielded a fragrant wax that could be rendered. It took fifteen pounds of bayberries to create one pound of wax! Bayberry candles did not store well and so were confined to special occasions such as holidays or weddings.
By the late 18th century candles were made from whale oil, the wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil that produced a significantly brighter light than tallow or beeswax. Eventually an entire industry was formed on Nantucket Island as it became home to all spermaceti candle-making in America.
The early part of the 19th century brought the Industrial Revolution and with it the invention of commercial candle molding machines. The development of the braided wick meant that wicks no longer needed to be snuffed and trimmed. Candles could now be massed produced, and with the introduction of paraffin—a welcome alternative to tallow—candles could now be manufactured affordably and abundantly.
Today, candles are still made from beeswax, but most are now made from paraffin wax and stearic acid, a byproduct of petroleum refining. Soy and other plant-based waxes, and gel (a mixture of mineral oil and polymer) have become increasingly popular. Whatever their origin, candles come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and scents. Pillars, tapers, votives, tea lights, floating, luminaries, and a variety of containers offer home decorators a vast array of choices. Whatever your favorites, we hope the following ideas will spark your creativity.
Clusters and Colors
Just as you would select a cohesive color palette for your home’s furnishings and accessories, grouping candles in the same color or various shades of the same hue creates a harmonious look. Pillars of varying heights and diameters placed together on the mantle create drama when the lights are dimmed. These large candles burn a long time, and should last throughout the holiday season and beyond.
Create a sophisticated centerpiece for your holiday table by placing a cluster of pillars on a mirror or silver tray. Nestle candles into large glass cylinders filled with pretty rocks, sand, shells, or beads to create a designer’s touch. Wrap a long string of pearls around the base of your candles and watch them sparkle in the candlelight.
If it’s too warm to enjoy a fire in your fireplace, create a tiered display using candles to simulate firelight. The effect is positively romantic! And there’s no wood to cut or ashes to clean up afterwards.
Lines of Light
If small children or pets are not an issue, line your staircase with simple votives. A bit of double-sided tape will secure the votive containers to the treads for easy removal later. If your stairs are wide enough, small metal lanterns can serve as candle holders for a bit of old-fashioned candlelight.
Line your outdoor walk, steps, stoop or deck railing with votives, lanterns, or luminaries to create a festive mood. One waterfront neighbor fills an old rowboat with sand and places dozens of candles that greet his guests and announce an evening of good cheer.
In the bathroom, line your tub rim with votives to illuminate the room for guests, taking care to remove or safely stow the shower curtain and any nearby towels. Fill a pretty bowl with water and place a few floating candles or, for a truly dramatic effect, fill your tub with several inches of water and place several floating candles that will turn your tub into an enchanted pool.
Deck the Halls
Tall tapers set in candlesticks and surrounded by greenery can turn an ordinary foyer table into a dramatic entrance. A mirror placed above or behind will reflect the candlelight and create a magical moment as your family and guests arrive.
Line your mantle with tapers set in a variety of holders short and tall, surround them with greenery and a few well-placed ornaments that capture the glow.
Stack a vintage cake stand with votives or tea lights that add a dramatic touch to your buffet table or side bar. Fill inexpensive wine glasses with sand and nestle tea lights inside. They will last long enough to illuminate an evening’s worth of festivities.
Not all Scents are Created Equal
Nothing says “holidays” like selecting candles with seasonal scents. Pine Forest, Hollyberry, Apple Cider, Pumpkin Spice, Candy Cane and dozens of other scents have been specially created for the holiday season. Scented candles go a long way however and you may find that all too soon, just a few can quickly overwhelm a room until you feel like you’ve stepped inside a Parisian perfumery!
Keep in mind when entertaining that some of your guests may be turned off by strong scents or, worse yet, allergic to the fragrances. Too many scents spoil the effect so choose carefully and place them judiciously so as not to overwhelm the senses.
A Word about Wicks
In general there are three types of wicks used today—cored, flat, and round. Flat and round wicks are typically made of cotton or cotton-paper blends. Cored wicks have a rigid core made of zinc or tin. The core keeps the wick upright and prevents it from curling over while it burns.
Prior to the 1970s wick cores were made of lead and tests showed lead presence in the smoke of a burning candle. In 2003 lead wicks were officially banned in the US. If your candle has a metal core and is pre-1970s, chances are it has a lead core. Caution should be used burning it indoors.
When is a Flame Not a Flame?
Today there is a wonderful alternative to wax candles and burning wicks—the flameless LED candle. We’ve seen some fabulous pillars with a wax exterior and a “flame” that flickers and dances just like the real thing. Run on batteries, some even have timers set to turn off after so many hours. Designed to give you soft candlelight without the worries, it’s a safe alternative if you have children or pets in the house.
Creating a candlescape is one of the joys of the season. Used with care, candles add another layer of intimate charm to your home décor. Fire is, after all, so much more than just a source of heat or to light a room. It’s an invitation to gather close and enjoy the warmth candles impart.