Burning Bayberry Candles on Christmas Eve – a Homesteading Tradition
Throughout my childhood growing up on a homestead, we burned bayberry candles on Christmas Eve. I remember my mother telling me this was for good luck in the coming year. Although I am not a superstitious person I must admit that our family was lucky in a lot of ways.
We always had enough food on the table. Friends and family were abundant and kind. Our roof didn’t leak and I always had a comfy bed of my own. My parents worked hard to give us a good life. They made sure we went to school and learned to be self-reliant and hard-working individuals.
Honestly, I’m pretty sure the bayberry candles had much less to do with this than my parents’ work ethic and generosity! But I do remember the warm glow of the bayberry candles burning on Christmas Eve and their soft herbal scent.
It was comforting to have traditions like these for a special time of the year.
We had other traditions for Christmas, of course. There was always a family dinner on Christmas Eve. We visited my grandparents to celebrate the holiday. (I was fortunate to have them within a couple of miles of our home for most of my childhood!)
Mom would always create a wonderful Christmas breakfast with quiche, fruit, and some sort of sweet rolls or bread. As a kid, opening gifts around the tree was the highlight. I have very fond memories of Christmas with my family!
Carrying on a New England Tradition
As an adult, I can’t say that the tradition of burning bayberry candles stuck with me. Still, I consider myself a very lucky person. I have a wonderful husband and son. We have a happy home and plenty to eat. Honestly, I can’t say I’ve given much thought to burning these special candles for good luck!
And then a package arrived on my doorstep the other day. Within I found a gift from my sister Beth…a pair of bayberry tapers! These are just like the candles my parents still burn. I imagine my mother is getting the table ready for a special Christmas Eve dinner as I write. And I’m sure there is a pair of bayberry candles in the center of the holiday spread.
Although we won’t be there to enjoy dinner with my parents and sister, we can share a tradition with them across the miles…by burning our candles on Christmas Eve. As my parents get older I’m reminded that it is up to my generation, and my son’s generation, to remember these traditions and keep the spirit of the season alive.
How Did the Tradition of Burning Bayberry Candles Begin?
When early settlers first arrived in the new world, they dedicated their waking hours to survival. Most everything they needed had to be planted, foraged, hunted, or made by hand. Before they learned to make bayberry candles, their only evening light came from tallow candles created from animal fat.
After butchering cattle or pigs, the women would make every candle needed for the year from the tallow left over. The candles were dipped over and over into the melted fat and as each layer cooled, another was added. It was a tedious process and the resulting candles produced soot and an unpleasant odor as they aged.
Native Americans, including the Houma Indians of the Louisiana territory, had been using the leaves, roots, and berries of bayberry for ages before the English settlers arrived. They made herbal remedies, tea, and candles and most likely the women of their tribes taught women from the colonies in the preparation and use of each part of the bayberry or wax myrtle shrub.
The ladies of early American settlements found that the wax produced from boiling bayberries left no soot and had a much nicer scent than tallow candles.
Folklore from the 1700s describes a group of colonial women who added bayberry oil to their candles. They were delighted to find these candles burned longer and with a pleasant odor. Supposedly they gave their wares to friends and family as a Christmas gift and the tradition of bayberry candles was born.
Will This Tradition Put Gold in Your Pocket?
I’m not going to make any bets on this…but next year I’ll let you know if I have more gold in my pockets than I do right now. This evening I’ll burn my lovely candles, so we’ll just have to wait and see!
Traditionally, two bayberry tapered candles are lit on Christmas Eve so that they will burn through midnight and usher in Christmas day. Here is the poem that goes along with the tradition of burning bayberry candles…
A bayberry candle
Burned to the socket
Brings joy to the home
And wealth to the pocket
And here is another version of this saying…
This bayberry candle comes from a friend
So on Christmas Eve burn it down to the end
For a bayberry candle burned to the socket
will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket!
The candles that my sister sent came from Cape Candles. They are made with real bayberries in the United States. They have a slightly different version of this early poem on the box…
As folklore goes, to bring good luck for a year,
burn to the nub on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
And if the flame burns bright, and the light shines clear,
then the heavens will bless you all through the year.
I think each version has its own charm!
Making & Using Bayberry Candles
In my area, bayberry is not a common plant, so making handmade candles from these lovely shrubs is probably not in my future. However, if you have an abundance of bayberry (or related shrubs) you might be able to make your own! Here are instructions for making bayberry and beeswax candles.
It takes a LOT of berries to make candles, so most bayberry candles are either a blend of bayberry wax and beeswax (the nicer ones) or they are paraffin with bayberry oil added for fragrance. In addition, bayberry wax is very brittle by itself so beeswax makes for a sturdier candle.
I read differing accounts of how many berries are needed to create one pound of wax. It is safe to say that you will need a large area to forage if you wish to collect enough to make your own candles.
Even our early foremothers weren’t able to create enough bayberry wax to make their everyday candles. Considered a luxury, they were saved for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve or for giving as gifts to loved ones.
For most people, making bayberry candles is not on their to-do list. Of course, you may purchase them for special occasions.
Whether you make your own bayberry candles or buy some, remember your fire safety lessons!
Never leave candles burning unattended. Place them in fire-proof candlesticks and place them on a heat-resistant surface away from any flammable materials. Make sure they can’t fall over and start a fire.
Some people leave their bayberry candles in their sink to burn overnight. I’m not a big fan of this…I don’t leave candles unattended. My Mom can tell you a story about my fear of fire and bayberry candles on Christmas Eve…ahem. Sorry about your glass candlesticks, Mom.
Burn Your Candles on New Year’s Eve!
According to legends, burning bayberry candles is customary on either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. So if you missed your chance at Christmas this year, you can still carry on this New England tradition on New Year’s Eve!
Either way, you’ll enjoy the warm, lovely glow of your natural bayberry candles and the herbal scent they impart. Although this might seem like an old-fashioned custom, what better time of the year to remember the hard work and ingenuity of our ancestors?
Do you burn bayberry candles on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve? What other traditions do you like to follow for the holidays? Leave a comment!