Sunday, December 9, 2018

bayberry candles, they go with the season

At the farmers market yesterday a fellow vendor mentioned to me a book by Eric Sloane that includes a passage about bayberry candles. I looked up Eric Sloane this morning (I did not know who he was) and found he was an American painter, writer, and quasi historian who lived from 1905 to 1985. The bayberry passage I found is just a couple of paragraphs in “The Seasons of America Past,” first published in 1958.
Bayberry candles were made during late autumn, when the berries were ripest. The bayberries were thrown into a pot of boiling water, and their fat rose to the top and became a superior candle wax. Bayberry candles burned slowly; they didn’t bend or melt during summer heat, and yielded a fine incense, particularly when the candle was snuffed. So prized were bayberry candles that the gathering of berries before autumn in America once brought a fifteen-shilling fine.

The silver-gray bayberries of scented bayberry, known in England as the “tallow shrub,” were for many years sent overseas as Christmas souvenirs from the New World. In the 1700’s, the bayberry was more Christmasy than holly (which represents the thorns and blood of the
crucifixion rather than the birth of Christ). The burning of a bayberry candle at Christmas was as traditional in America as the burning of a yule log in England. “A bayberry candle burned to the socket,” an old verse goes, “brings luck to the house and gold to the pocket.” Children seldom went to bed on Christmas night without the magic charm of a bayberry candle, and the perfume of the snuffed bayberry candle was part of that magic night.
The mention of Christmas and that little ditty about sockets and pockets and gold makes Sloane’s depiction of bayberry candles and their place in our colonial history markedly different from Alice Morse Earle’s, but of course Sloane was writing some 60 years later and I have not had time to check out his sources and do not know if he cites any. He may just be a hopeless romantic remembering some old ad copy from his youth. But a nice illustration accompanies the passage, and it seems there are many illustrations throughout the book, which would probably make a nice Christmas present for somebody on your list.

As the Christmas decor begins to emerge, with bayberry wax candle.