‘It snowed and snowed, the whole world over, Snow swept the world from end to end. A candle burned on the table; A candle burned. ‘
– Boris Pasternak from A Winter Night
Today’s image: the candle
How does an innovation that’s over 5,000 years and originally made with reeds and melted animal fat become a signifier of luxury and relaxation in wealthy countries? With the wide availability of electricity, one imagines. Where once people turned to them for essential illumination, now they light them to provide a kinder glow. Candles are now an indulgent item (the occasional power cut aside), scented, encased in glass jars, poured from purest waxes, etc. etc.
They continue to represent each Sunday in Advent, too. In the Christian calendar, 13th December is St Lucy’s Day (Lucia Day), marked as a festival of light. In the 4th century, Lucia of Syracuse, brought food and aid to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs, lighting her way with a candle-lit wreath on her head, so as to hold the provisions in her hands. Lucy means light, of course, derived from Latin. According to one story, Lucy was forced into prostitution for refusing to deny her faith. In another, she was burned alive, but miraculously escaped unharmed. Yet another story saw her eyes removed but then wondrously replaced (she is the Patron Saint of the blind).
Whatever the truth, the representation of providing light in darkness is a powerful one. Candles represent of course light, the spirit of truth, as well as hope and faith that light will return to the world.
As noted above, the candle has taken on somewhat different connotations in the 21st century. In the United States, candle manufacture is worth almost $4 billion annually, for instance, and it continues to grow. The US National Candle Association (yes really) reports around 35% of sales occur during the winter holiday season, and over 10,000 different scents are on the market. The Danes, those perpetuators of hygge, the quality of domestic cosiness, burn more candles than any other nation in the world. It’s a big industry, with candles for every taste and occasion.
There are even, I notice, companies that produced scented candles which are ‘inspired by books and writers’. Burn one of these, and you might create the atmosphere of The Three Broomsticks pub in the Harry Potter books, 221B Baker Street in Sherlock Holmes, or even close physical proximity to Oscar Wilde (he smells of aged books and sunflowers, apparently – hey, could be a lot worse).
Research indicates that the relatively dim, warm light of candles not only puts us in a more relaxed mood, but also increases conviviality amongst groups of people. No wonder they’re considered a dinner-party staple.
So in one sense, candles are doing what they have always done – provide a simple, comforting luminosity.
Sally Augustin ‘Break out the Candles: Applying environmental psych research can improve holiday gatherings’ in Psychology Today, 22 December 2017 https://ebookfriendly.com/literary-scented-candles/ on https://ebookfriendly.com/
Main image Pierre Pavlovic on Unsplash
Image Hakan Erenler from Pexels