Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s winter, with the longest nights of the year. Throughout time, even while the darkness surrounded them, people have celebrated the light.
As we move through December and winter, we explore celebrations involving lights in the dark. And what better way to light that darkness than with candles!
Way back in Egypt in 5000 BC, people used candles made from beeswax or animal fat to light the long nights of winter. The oldest candleholder found in the area was made from clay.
The Chinese created candles from whale fat and tallow, which both burn brightly. And some cultures such as India and Japan also used plant-based wax for their candles.
These early candles were formed by rolling papyrus or rice paper into thin wicks and dipping the tube into the wax, leaving it to dry. When the candle was lit, the paper burned, and the wax would melt and become fuel for the flame.
Sometimes early explorers made candles from a dried fish! The eulachon, or candlefish, has such high body fat at certain times of its life, it can be caught, dried, and lighted as a candle! Imagine a fish nightlight!
Medieval and Colonial Candles
Later, in the middle ages and colonial times, the paper wicks were exchanged for improved wicks made from cotton or hemp. These wicks burned slower, which made the candles last longer.
In modern times, our candles are molded from paraffin and stearic acid, and also waxes obtained from palm and soy plants.
Candles can be plain or highly decorative, and some even release pleasant fragrances as they burn.
Plenty of Uses for Candles
Historically, people used candles to light their homes, and travelers used them to light their way. But candles have played a part in celebrations, religious and otherwise, for millennia.
Although animal fats and plant wax made up most of the candles for everyday use long ago, candles for special occasions used beeswax. These candles made from honeycombs burn cleaner without creating a lot of smoke…perfect for quiet rituals and jolly celebrations alike.
Let’s explore a few of the world’s winter festivals featuring candles!
The Jewish Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah, centers on the lighting of candles in a special holder called a menorah. You can find a great recipe for this holiday in our Israel Explorer Box!
Advent marks the weeks to Christmas with the lighting of special candles, and the Feast of Santa Lucia is a popular candle festival observed in Sweden, Italy, and Croatia. Our World Holiday Treats Box has recipes for both!.
Another celebration of light at this time is Kwanzaa, which uses candles to focus on seven cultural principles of African-American identity. You can find delicious East African recipes in our Ethiopia Explorer Box!
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights celebrated in October or November each year and uses oil lamps to represent the light of their lunar new year and the triumph of light over darkness. Check out the tasty recipes for Diwali in our India Explorer Box!
Other lunar new year celebrations occur in China and Japan. You’ll find another excellent recipe for the Japanese celebration in our World Holiday Treats Box!
Many other cultures have winter celebrations of light, all pointing the way to the end of the dark days of the winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
So much food, so many traditions featuring light! Choose your box, light your candles, and celebrate!