Any other time of year an encrusted Chianti bottle will do, but Christmas calls for candlelight more refined. Even the Scrooges, those who care not a fiddle for ceremony or are bold to ignore tradition, succumb to the soft enchantment of a candle's glow.
Symbol and legend, of course, are as far from our minds, as we light Christmas candles, as they were from the mind of one Charles Follen, a German immigrant. In 1832 he shocked his decorous Harvard neighbors by inviting them to view the "seven dozen wax tapers" he'd affixed to a tree for the enjoyment of his son.
Pure pleasure always survives if given a reason, so, sure as Christmas comes once a year, those same proper New Englanders called it "tradition" and soon had candles not only on trees of their own but on window ledges and any other place they could justify putting them.
And so do we.
The problem these days is not with finding excuses but finding worthy candles.
Those celebrants in the last century, and their chandlers (candle-makers) too, would gasp at the variety nostalgia and 20th century technology, combined, laid out for us. It's a cinch to match your esthetic with a candle of any shape, shade, size, scent or luster. But try to locate one that doesn't drip, smoke, keel over or leave your dinner guests wondering why everything tastes the same but a little bit strange. Those are the classic standards for a good candle. One that doesn't meet them is not, if you'll pardon, quite up to snuff.
Such a candle has never been cheap. Beeswax, for example, gained its reputation as a ceremonial candle because upon occasion throughout history it has been so rare that not even the wealthy were allowed to burn it. Only at the church's altar could it be used. The tradition of beeswax in the church is so strong that until a few years ago Catholics were not allowed to use any candle but beeswax for Mass and liturgical functions.
Assuming the wick is good, a beeswax candle burns slow and clean and pure. The wax won't melt below 190 degrees F. It will, however, bend easily at 70 degrees, a potential dinner table disaster. Most beeswax candles today aren't 100 percent beeswax anyway.
"To be fair to the bees and to our customers -- it takes a bee 20,000 hours to make a pound of wax and we want to give our customers the best at a price they can afford -- we add paraffin as a 'body wax,'" explains a Kansas City architect turned candle-maker. Duane Benton's Creative Candles aren't called beeswax but contain some. They are recognized as some of the finest on the market. They're also very expensive.
"We use three waxes besides beeswax in the mix for our hand-dipped tapers. Each one contributes something. The high grade of paraffin [petroleum-based wax] we use would not make a pretty candle, but a low grade, which would, doesn't have enough tack for the layers to bond. So we add stearin [wax usually from animal fat, sometimes from vegetable oils] to make the candle opaque -- who wants a shiny candle anyway? -- and stiffer. Stearin melts and bends at the same temperature, about 160 degrees F. We use just a bit of carnauba [wax from the Brazilian palm leaf] because it melts above 190 degrees F., like beeswax, but has no bending point below that."
If you're looking for the perfect taper, slim as a reed and up to 39 inches long, Benton's is the one. You have your pick of 30 colors (including white), all unscented. Unfortunately, the local selection is extremely limited. The Great Chase in Georgetown carries the 7/8-inch width in 6-inch, 9-inch and 12-inch lengths. Georgetown Coffee, Tea and Spice has a 15-inch length but not 9-inch. Appalachiana in Bethesda has only red and green and only in a 2 1/2-inch width, 6-inch and 9-inch heights.
A candle doesn't have to be perfect to do just fine. The Candlewyck in Alexandria has one of the area's best overall top-quality selections of holiday candles. At least it did in the beginning of the season. The price is popular and the patrons loyal. This year the White House ordered 36 red Williamsburg pillars from this shop. But never fear. If you, too, want 9-inch red Williamsburg pillars. Elise Clark, the owner, special-ordered the White House candles so she wouldn't leave her shelves empty for those of us not on congressional appropriations.
The back wall of the Candlewyck is as colorful as an old-fashioned Christmas tree. Clark has hung tapers in all of Williamsburg Soap and Candle Co.'s 32 colors. These are unscented and of various heights, but the shop has a few Williamsburg tapers with Christmas scents. Clark also stocks Williamburg's "Thai" candle holders that everybody brought back from Southeast Asia. Thai candles are always 2 1/2-inches wide, but they come in heights of 9, 12, 16 and 24 inches.
Besides Williamsburg's authentic hand-dipped, traditional types ("Primarily paraffin and a little bit of artificial beeswax," claim the Williamsburg folk), Clark carries mass-produced, better-quality molded candles, typically cheaper than hand-dipped. Clark stocks Faroy, Colonial, Carolina brands in all shpaes, sizes and scents. This is the place for odds and ends: votives, refills for your Hummels, etc. It's also the place to find the spermaceti (whale sperm oil) candle, rare unto extinction because it's illegal to kill the whale, an endangered species.
"Yes, it's the real thing." says Tony Dias, owner of Nantucket Candle Shop, which makes the rare taper. "We're still producing them. We have a certificate of exemption from Washington. I don't know if it will be renewed. It expires in 1983."
"This is the finest candle ever," pronounces Clark. It is indeed elegant, especially for the dinner table. It gives no scent or smoke. It burns bright and long. It's hand-dipped, tall (11 and 15 inches) and is the loveliest white imaginable.
Despite the fact that Nantucket's spermaceti are authentic, its bayberry and cranberry aren't.
"We can't use real cranberries because that's too long and involved," explains Dias. "Besides, it's kind of watery. We do put bayberry wax in our bayberry candles, maybe 35 to 40 percent."
Chances are, that's as good as you'll get. Extracting the wax from bayberries is as tedious as ever. Sweet smelling as it is, few people are willing to pay the price. And there aren't that many bushes.
"If we used real bayberries, we'd clean the Cape out in a week," says Anne Fitzpatrick of Colonial Candle of Cape Cod. "We put out some 25 millions candles for Christmas, and right up there is bayberry."
Authenticity of scent and wax are not the only things in question. Burning time is another. Not all 10-inch candles, even the same diameter, burn equally slowly.
Fitzpatrick says Colonial's Classic, a bestseller, burns 45 minutes per inch under ideal conditions. That's not quite eight hours for a l0-inch candle. A comparable Williamsburg candle, according to a company spokesman, will burn l8 hours. (Williamsburg's most popular candle, its 3-by-6-inch, burns for 36 hours.) Of course, there's the price difference to consider.
Scandinavian designs are far less traditional. The best candles from Scandinavia are made of an extremely pure stearin, so the candles often are whiter than white and shiny as plastic. Check out the Kanal candle at the Midnight Sun. The Kanal has four "canals" running all the way through so that when a breeze comes the wax will drip down the canals. They're made by the famous Liljeholmens. In Sweden these are burned in churches.
American church candles aren't such a bad idea either. Abbott's Church Goods in Silver Spring and the Wm. J. Gallery in Wheaton are good for candles and their paraphernalia. At Abbott's, a dozen unscented, 15-hour votives cost $2.25. In most shops they're 50-cents each. Thirty dollars will buy you a 4-foot-long candle snuffer complete with brass (the salesmen claim it's real) bell and ashwood handle.
If it's the day before the dinner party and you've tried the Candlewyck, Martin's China of Georgetown, the Gift Horse, the gift departments at Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel's, all in a futile scavenge for unsold bobeches (the glass or crystal circles at the base of candles to catch drippings) -- try the church supply houses. Theirs may be plain, but they'll save your table cloth.
These places are also good for beeswax candles, assuming you want white. Gallery has 50 samples hanging on a wall.