Thursday, December 21, 2017

candle studies: myrtle wax, a.k.a. bayberry & the stuff of legends (& a little advertising)

When reading about myrtle wax, things become contrary. As a natural wax (or tallow, which we will get to in Part 2, if we get to Part 2), this is to be expected, for nature is variable. Among the variables I have read about myrtle wax: it is green, bluish grey, muddied brown; it has a strong scent, it has very little scent; its scent is like spice, fir trees, campfires, Christmas; it burns with a bright light, it burns with a low light; it is too brittle to make a candle that stands on its own, but bayberry candles will burn longer, cleaner, and brighter …

What is the story?

Indeed, bayberry candles are expensive.

And yes, there is this bayberry & good luck Christmas thing.


Myrtle wax is more commonly known as bayberry wax. But a bayberry candle is not necessarily made of bayberry wax. Rather, and more likely, especially if affordable, a bayberry candle is a so-called bayberry candle made of soy or paraffin or just something else scented to smell like bayberry. Or what we think of as bayberry, such as, I presume, fir trees, campfires, and Christmas. But all bayberry candles—no matter their color or what they are made of or what they smell like—are all about Christmas. Even The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes mentions that myrtle wax makes “Highly decorative candles suited for Christmas and other festive occasions … They are referred to as bayberry candles … ”

A plain bayberry candle arranged festively and decoratively with blocks of myrtle wax.

What one reads is that bayberry candles are a Christmas tradition dating back to Colonial America, and there is a legend that has to do with lighting one bayberry candle on either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve in order to summon good luck for the new year. The more I read about this legend (and the only place I read about it is online), the more it reminded me of that jazz about beeswax and negative ions, meaning: goofy marketing ploy. Which, I hasten to add, should not detract from one’s reverence or enjoyment thereof.

Myrtle wax occurs naturally on the berries of various shrubby plants of the species Myrica, some of which grow in the States, mostly along the east coast in sandy soil. To get at the wax, one gathers the myrtle’s berries and boils them in water. The wax separates and rises to the top. One can filter the liquid wax and/or boil again, it’s now just a matter of refining the wax, and this process is pretty standard for extracting any naturally occurring wax from its host plant and cleaning it of the various things that are not wax. (It is also similar to beeswax refining.)

Bayberry & Beeswax, a couple of old pals.

So what’s the big deal? Myrtle sounds like an ordinary, hard-workin’, no-nonsense (albeit pretty) gal from the country while Bayberry is like some la-di-da fancy-pants debutante living in a mansion on the hill coming out just once a year to bestow upon us all her glory and luck. How did she get so great?

Enter the legend of the Christmas bayberry candle, which is repeated on so many websites that sell bayberry or so-called bayberry candles and repeated once and twice and thrice again on so many websites that just seem to want to explain things without offering any insight into the author’s sources or methods, that I became suspect. Plus, I did not find any mention of a bayberry candle tradition on any site of a historical nature that attempted to describe Colonial America, its traditions, and the ways in which people celebrated Christmas in the 1600s into the 1700s. I did find a great book from 1894 called Customs and Fashions in Old New England, by Alice Morse Earle, a woman of some authority, and although it mentioned candles made of bayberry wax, there was no mention of any Christmas tradition with said candles. Furthermore, her description of light sources in the 1600s leads one to question the part of the legend that has to do with most candles of the time being made of animal fat.

And then there is this:

Here’s the full bayberry candle legend as I have come to understand it.
In Colonial America, times were tough. The only light came from candles, and candles were made from tallow—animal fat—and tallow was messy and stunk and inevitably turned rancid. Then the people discovered bayberry shrubs, which surrounded them in abundance. They picked the berries and boiled them for hours. A wax was gleaned, and the wax was good. It could be made into candles that were brighter, sweeter, and far longer-lasting than tallow candles, and the people were grateful. But, alas, it took so many berries to make so little wax; and candles of bayberry became precious, a luxury to be used just once a year, on Christmas Eve, or New Year’s Eve, or maybe just at the darkest time of year. And the candles came to signify good luck, and the people composed a poem.

(The poem is copied directly from this website.)

Verse 1:
This bayberry candle is a gift from a friend,
on Christmas Eve burn it down to the end.
A bayberry candle burned down to the socket,
brings luck to the home and wealth to the pocket.

Verse 2:
Here's a Bayberry Candle that's meant just for you,
With Holiday Tradition that's tried and true.
When you light this candle on Christmas Eve Day,
Love and Luck come to you when it's burned all the way!

Verse 3:
To bring good luck for a year,
you must burn a Bayberry Candle on Christmas Day.
And if the flame burns bright, and the light shines clear,
then heaven will bless you all the year.
Well, sure, I wasn’t there, but I’m not at all sold on the idea that these pithy little rhymes came out of the mouths or quills and ink of Pilgrims and Puritans, or even that they were exchanging Christmas gifts. Which doesn’t mean they weren’t burning their nice bayberry candles during the dark of the winter solstice, hoping for better luck ahead. But these poems remind me of something on an old-fashioned Victorian postcard, or a particularly verbose gift tag of yore, or some funky and fun advertising from a hundred or so or less years ago. But Colonial America? I’m not buying it.

But I did buy a pound of bayberry wax online from a beekeeper supply company, and there we have Part 2, coming soon.

Best of Bayberry Luck to You and Yours.