Candles play an important role in many winter holidays. Candlelight is not only lovely and mesmerizing to look at, but there is typically a special meaning attached.
An important part of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, or “The Festival of Lights,” is the nightly lighting of a candle on the menorah, a candelabrum that holds nine candles. Eight candles represent the eight nights of Hanukkah, and the ninth candle, called the “shamash,” is used to light the others.
Some Americans of African descent honor their heritage and traditions of their ancestors by celebrating Kwanzaa. Each day they light one of seven candles in a candelabrum called the “kinara.” Each candle represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
The Christmas holiday uses candles and light in a variety of ways, from the light of the star over Bethlehem to the lighting of one candle each of the four weeks during Advent (four weeks prior to Christmas).
Do you use candles at your house as part of your holiday decorations or celebrations? Have you ever stopped to wonder how they’re made?
Not much is known about the origin of candles. Some believe the first candles appeared in China in about 200 B.C. The first Chinese candles were probably made with whale fat.
Others credit the Ancient Egyptians with inventing candles. According to some historians, the Ancient Egyptians used rushlights (primitive torches) made by soaking dried reeds in melted tallow (a processed form of animal fat).
Early candles were usually made with some form of animal fat. Unfortunately, these candles probably did not smell as nice as today’s candles do.
In fact, they might have had an odor like fried, greasy food. They also would have created a lot of smoke, which made them difficult to use effectively indoors.
Over time, other materials were used to make candles that would burn cleaner and produce less smoke.
In the Middle Ages, candle-makers discovered that beeswax (a substance produced by bees and used to make their honeycombs) made great candles. Unfortunately, beeswax candles were expensive, so only the wealthy could afford them.
In the 18th century, spermaceti wax (made from oil from sperm whales) was often used to make candles. The first candles that resembled modern-day candles were likely made with spermaceti wax.
Most candles today are made from paraffin. Paraffin is a waxy byproduct of petroleum refining, and it was first distilled in 1830. Paraffin revolutionized candle-making because it was inexpensive, burned cleanly and produced no odor.
The only drawback to paraffin was its low melting point. Eventually, candle-makers discovered that they could add stearic acid to paraffin to make candles firmer and melt more slowly.
Today, most candle manufacturers — known traditionally as “chandlers” — use modern manufacturing equipment, including molds, to mass-produce candles. The basic production method involves melting the solid fuel (paraffin) and pouring it into a mold until it cools.
Some artists, though, prefer to make candles the old-fashioned way by repeatedly dipping a wick into heated beeswax, paraffin or whatever waxy substance they wish to use. With repeated dippings, you can make a basic tapered candle.
Candle artisans often add dyes and scents to make a wide variety of custom-colored candles that smell great when they’re burned. You may not want to burn them, though!
Custom candles can often turn out too beautiful to burn. People who love such homemade candles may collect them as pieces of art.