We take light in our lives for granted. A room gets dark, we flip a switch and voila: Light! We rarely worry about the lack of it until there is a power outage or — as many will be facing in a COVID-19 strained economy — an electric bill goes unpaid.
Light was not always an easy thing to come by. For centuries, the advent of light in one’s life was the result of much toil. Trust me. Have you ever tried making candles? I have, and I failed miserably. My interest in mastering 18th-century living skills led me to buying a hunk of beeswax and a tin candle mold. How hard could it be? Pull the wick through the mold, melt the wax, pour and let harden. Then pop out the candles. The candles, though, didn’t pop. They had to be yanked. And even then, many refused to come out of the mold. I couldn’t imagine having to make 400 candles, the average number of candles American colonial women were tasked to make annually for a household.
When I got to the store to buy candles that I had failed to make on my own, I wasn’t prepared for the assortment available: soy, paraffin, coconut and beeswax. Did the material really matter? I did some research and discovered the wax used did indeed matter. In early days, many houses depended on light from a rush dipped in tallow (animal fat). Later on, the rush was replaced with a wick that was dipped in tallow. But tallow produced a horrible smell, especially if it was made from pig fat. The tallow candles didn’t burn cleanly either, producing a thick black smoke. There was the problem as well that many people couldn’t afford to eat a lot of meat, and so tallow was not readily available for all. Thus, candles were a premium item.
History records a servant’s terms of employment in one wealthy household to include a daily ration of one candle, to be used only to find their way to their room at night to get ready for bed. Only the wealthy had the means to burn candles made out of beeswax, which had a pleasant scent and a longer burn time.
Then there was the bayberry candle. In New England, women discovered that boiling bayberries would produce a wax-like substance that would burn cleanly and smell beautifully. It would take 15 pounds of bayberries, though, to make one pound of wax. So, bayberry candles were often reserved for special times — holidays — and special places — inside a church. There is a folklore that burning a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve will bring health and wealth in the new year. I have brought this tradition to my 18th-century home, burning a bayberry candle throughout Christmastide.
Throughout Advent and Christmastide, we have been invited to light candles. But did we even stop to think that the very act of lighting a candle could be an act of social justice? Who is burning tallow? Who has the means to burn beeswax? Have we ever stopped to think that the ability to have a candle is one of privilege? Do we realize the amount of work it takes to create a candle to burn?
If we are to be candles in this world — the lights of Christ to others — then we must realize that light is not to be taken for granted, that light comes with work and responsibility. And the “wax” we burn for God should be the cleanest and the purest. Just as the Magi presented their extravagant gifts to Jesus, we, too, need to give our best.
God of light, illumine my world to see those who are sitting in darkness. Help me to not only be a candle of hope and love for them, but to give freely the light from my own candle. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.
Try your hand at making candles. Go online to research candle making instructional videos and where to buy the supplies needed. The candles you make can be used in the celebration of Candlemas, Feb. 2, a church feast that marks the presentation of Jesus in the temple.