What are bayberry candles? Origins, history and holiday traditions
Emerging in Colonial America, bayberry candles were known for being bright, clean-burning and expensive. But the story doesn't end there...
When were bayberry candles invented?
Bayberry candles came into being in Colonial America, when early settlers on the Eastern coast discovered that boiling the bluish-grey berries of the bayberry bush resulted in a waxy substance, which could be turned into candles. As Love to Know explains, two types of bayberry bush (the Myrica Pensylvanica and the Myrica Cerifera), were both plentiful along the entire Eastern coastline.
Prior to this, many candle waxes were made from tallow (animal fats), and gave off a foul odour and lots of soot when burnt. So, when it was discovered that bayberry candles gave a brighter, cleaner flame, with no unpleasant odour, they quickly became popular. In fact, they naturally produce a desirable scent which has become a well-known holiday aroma in modern society.
However, due to the long and arduous process of making this candle wax - and the large amounts of berries that need boiling to create a sufficient amount of wax - bayberry candles never became mainstream, as most people could only afford cheaper waxes like stearin and eventually paraffin.
How are bayberry candles made?
As mentioned above, Colonial American women would boil a large quantity of bayberries to get a waxy residue, which they could turn into candles.
Despite technological advances, the process today is not much faster. According to Love to Know, depending on moisture availability, it still takes from three to fifteen pounds of bayberries to make a single pound of bayberry wax. Luckily, these fruits are native to the US and can be found in abundance at this time of year.
What traditions are bayberry candles used in?
Early Colonists were reportedly proud of their bayberry candles, and so saved them for special occasions, such as Christmas Eve. This was also the case because the candles took so long to produce. It made sense to save the bayberry candles, and instead use cheaper and faster-to-produce tallow candles throughout the rest of the year.
This special tradition of lighting bayberry candles on special occasions has sparked a yearly holiday tradition for many Americans. While there isn't any specific religious meaning as such, lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas or New Year's Eve remains a long-standing tradition in certain U.S. regions, such as the Northeastern states.
Some traditions cite you should light the bayberry candle when you see the first star, while others instruct that the candle be lit at midnight. When lit on New Year's Eve, legend has it that a bayberry candle will bring a year of prosperity and good fortune to the house.
The following poem is often recited when the bayberry candle is lit in these traditions:
"This bayberry candle comes from a friend
For Christmas Eve/New Year's Eve I do send
For a bayberry candle burned to the socket
Will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket."
Modern bayberry wax candles
Today, many people still enjoy traditionally made bayberry wax candles. In particular, the natural olive green colour and festive aroma remain ever popular.
While there are plenty of pure bayberry candles still on the market, lots of candle companies choose to blend bayberry wax with beeswax. This provides a smoother, less brittle wax, which is less likely to break apart in transit or in between burns.
Some candle companies simply use a more popular, common wax, like soy, coconut or paraffin wax, before adding bayberry essential oil to achieve that signature scent.
Can I buy bayberry candles in the UK?
As an American tradition, bayberry candles are less prevalent here in the UK. In fact, we scoured the internet and could not find a single UK stockist selling bayberry candles at a reasonable price (as the only options are exported US candles).
So, at present, the only way to enjoy bayberry candles in the UK is by paying astronomical shipping prices to get your candles from America, or finding some exported bayberries (as they are not native to the UK) and creating your own. Both of these options will, unfortunately, take a significant amount of time and money.
Here's hoping that bayberry candles will find their way to the UK soon. For now though, we'll have to wait until our next trip to the States to stock up...