Southwords

Dispelling Darkness

A candle for every season, every reason

By Tom Allen

Candles go with Christmas like eggs with Easter; turkey with Thanksgiving. Choose tapers or tea lights, votives or pillars, from hundreds in stores or online. Some burn a flame, others need batteries. Dripless or scented, there’s a candle for every occasion.

Candles, although not high-tech like cars or computers, remain a billion dollar industry, fueled by wellness and self-care trends. Cocooning requires candles. Staying in has become the new going out. Open the Hello Fresh box, pour a glass from wine-of-the-month delivery, and light a seasonal scent from Bath and Body Works. “Alexa, play some Diana Krall.”

Used to be candles served practical purposes, though occasionally, decorative. My mother, pragmatic and minimalist when it came to Christmas decor, stationed two red tapers at each end of our mantel, with cellophane intact. The tapers remained unlit despite the manger scene, even on Christmas Eve. When the power went out during a January storm she might remove the cellophane and light the candles, but ambience had nothing to do with kindling a flame.

Electric candles, with opaque, orange bulbs from the 1950s and ’60s, illuminated front windows; by the ’70s, Colonial Williamsburg’s influence reached small-town N.C. White lights replaced colored. Clear lights glowed in our windows, lit our tree, and twined around the lamppost. But red tapers, cellophane intact, still stood on the mantel. I’m not sure Mom ever bought into the scented candle craze. French Vanilla? Frosted Cranberry? If the power goes out, who needs aromatherapy? Gimme some light so I can see how to brush my teeth.

Today, chandlers (the fancy name for folks who make candles) market to our olfactory receptors and life situations. Tough day at the office? How ’bout a Stress Relief 3-Wick Eucalyptus + Spearmint or a soy-based Lime Basil Mandarin? Snowed in without a good read? Light a Frostbeard Studio brand favorite — Bookstore, a blend of “driftwood, mahogany, coffee, and the subtle scent of leather.” Missing your homeland? Homesick specializes in candles that “tap into your sensory memory through nostalgic scents that remind you of the place you grew up.” For 30 bucks you can take North Carolina on the road over the holidays and “breathe in memories . . . recalling blackberries, peaches, and notes of smoky barbecue. Spicy hints of cinnamon and clove are balanced with mild and sweet tonka bean and amber.” Tonka bean? What’s a tonka bean? 

I confess, my wife and I bought into the seasonal scents — Bahama Breeze, Clean Cotton, Apple Spice. And for the holidays, Balsam and Cedar, Christmas Cookie, Home for the Holidays. Our favorite, from locally owned Seagrove Candles: Yuletide, our answer to “Candle of the Month” for December.

No electric candles in our windows. Only traditional red tapers, sans wrappers, line our mantel — three on each end, with brass holders of varying heights. Tea lights for my grandmother’s buffet, pillars rest on our dining room table, and votives cast a glow on departed loved ones’ photos.

An Advent wreath, with three purple candles and one pink, lit weekly to remind us of the season’s significance, sits beside a Hummel Nativity. Last Christmas, thanks to my wife, after 27 years, the remaining two Wise Men found their way to the creche, illuminated by the wreath’s “Christ Candle,” reserved for Christmas Eve.

Christmas and Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, fall during the darkest days of the year. Light plays an important role in those narratives. Angelic light surrounds frightened shepherds; a star guides Magi to a newborn king; a tiny bit of oil miraculously burned for eight days in a temple candelabrum. Perhaps that’s why we light Advent wreaths, menorahs, and Yankee Candles during light-starved December — to remind us that light dispels darkness, whether inside our cocoons or deep within our souls.

So strike a match, light up the mantel, kindle your own flame. Create light. Be light. Illuminate your corner of the world. What a wonderful, priceless gift. PS

Tom Allen is minister of education at First Baptist Church, Southern Pines.

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