Very few household items serve as many different purposes as candles. While a candle is an everyday commodity used for practical reasons, it is also an artful home décor accessory as well as an essential component in life’s celebrations and ceremonies from baptisms and birthdays to funerals. How did this seemingly simple object end up playing such an important role in our lives?
Fire has always been a key element for human survival, and it makes sense that it has both practical and symbolic significance to us. We revere fire as it also has the power to destroy us. The earliest known evidence of controlled fire dates back to Israel almost 800,000 years ago. The first forms of movable fire were used by Ancient Egyptians, who made rush lights and torches by soaking the pithy core of reeds in melted animal fat. The first true wicked candles weren’t developed until around 3,000 BC by Ancient Romans by dipping rolled papyrus repeatedly in melted tallow or beeswax. Other civilizations created their own candles from available materials such as insect wax in China and cinnamon tree in Japan.
Throughout history, humans have experimented with different sources of wax for candles: tallow wax from leftover kitchen fats, beeswax, bayberry wax, spermaceti (from sperm whale oil), and later, stearin, paraffin and soybean wax. A candle-molding machine invented in the 19th century enabled mass production of candles. However, with the introduction of the light bulb in 1879, candle making began to decline.
The popularity of candles saw a rise in the 1980’s when people became interested in them as decorative objects, gifts, and ways to set an atmosphere.
With its roots in the element of fire, known for its power to both create and destroy, a candle symbolizes love and hope, light and warmth, celebration and commemoration. Though we no longer need candles to illuminate our surroundings, we hold on to their meaning as an expression of joy, reverence and reflection. Rituals abound to this day. In Christianity, a lit candle represents the divine light of God. In a marriage ceremony, two taper candles represent the two individuals, and a solid pillar their coming together in a union. Lighting a candle for the deceased signifies that their memory lives on and burns bright. Blowing out candles on a birthday cake goes back to an old belief that smoke will carry our wishes and prayers to the heavens. Each culture has their own spin on the traditions – it’s the ritual of lighting a candle itself that matters.
More and more, candles have also evolved into a sensual experience, a way to soothe our senses, spark romance, reconnect with our roots and signify a desire for a quieter and more meaningful way of life. What do you value in your life? Light a candle today to celebrate a moment that matters, a connection you treasure, or a person you love.
PHOTOS: C.HARDER FOR AND NORTH