Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The French coined the phrase ‘burning the candle at both ends’ in the 1600s, using it to mean dissipating one’s material wealth. Candles were expensive and anyone who burned them at both ends was guilty of wasting valuable resources. Over time, the phrase evolved to the current meaning most of us think of – to overwork and exhaust oneself by doing too many things and to live a life that is so frenetic as to be unsustainable. In 1920, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night.” Let’s take a closer look at some other idioms involving candles.

Don’t hide your candle under a bushel

The modern meaning is to be so modest as to conceal one’s talents. Modesty is seen to be a good thing by most cultured societies, but overdoing it by hiding it is not a desirable attribute. After all, what’s the point of having a light and hiding it from view? Matthew 5:15 says “Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel basket, but on a candlestick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.”

Can’t hold a candle to ___ 

Holding a candle to provide light for someone else was considered to be a menial task back in the 1500s. Assistants would hold candles for their superiors to provide enough light for them to work by. The modern version of this candle idiom suggests a subordinate so inferior and inept as to not even be able to perform this simple task.

Not worth the candle

This term is used to refer to any activity whose outcome is not worth the time, effort or money. One source says the expression originally referred to card games where so little money was gambled that the candle used during the game cost more than the game itself.

Bell, Book, and Candle 

This is from the final line of an excommunication ritual. As the church official intoned the words “Shut the book, quench the candle, ring the bell,” he (and it was certainly a he, you can be sure) would close the book, extinguish the candle, and toll a bell, signifying spiritual death. The 12 priests surrounding the bishop hurled the candles they had been carrying to the floor, damning the person to eternal fire. In 1950, Bell, Book and Candle was the title of a 1950 play where a beautiful modern day witch falls in love and loses her supernatural powers. In 1958, it became a film starring Kim Novak and James Stewart.

A bit of candle history

Candles.org says the earliest candles came from ancient Egyptians who made small torches of reeds dipped in melted tallow (animal fat), the same stuff used to make soap. Rushes and reeds were everywhere along the Nile (Moses in the bullrushes, anyone?) so it was easy to pick hollow reeds and animal fat was plentiful, too. People used the earliest candles to light their homes and to aid travelers at night. Evidence shows similar “candles” were invented independently by the Chinese and Japanese.

Tallow candles spread across Asia and Europe and in the Middle Ages

They produced light well enough, but were smoky and smelly. Candles got an upgrade when animal fat was replaced by beeswax that burned more cleanly and had a pleasant scent, not the foul acrid odor of burning lard. Colonial Americans made pleasantly scented candles with wax made from berries, and bayberry-scented candles are still a favorite today. Refinements in materials and processes came in bits and snatches until 1834, when Joseph Morgan built a machine that mass produced candles so efficiently that candles became an affordable commodity for the masses.

Ancient Greeks offered cakes with candles to Artemis, the god who ruled over the moon

As the story goes, the cakes were round like the moon, the candles’ light was like moonlight and the smoke from the candles (crude candles of the time produced lots of smoke) was believed to help Artemis hear their prayers. Some say this is why we blow out the candles on cakes today. The wish you make before blowing out the candles on your birthday cake is the offspring of those ancient prayers to heaven.

Happy Birthday

During the Middle Ages, the 1,000 years leading up to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century, birthdays were celebrated only by pagans and were deemed to pose a threat to Christianity. In 1746, Count Ludwig von Zindorf didn’t much care about old superstitions and so celebrated his birthday with a cake that had one candle for each year and another in the middle. Also in the 1700s, Germans celebrated with candles during Kinderfest, a birthday celebration for children. Only one candle was placed upon the cake and lit to symbolize the light of life.

“Good Morning to You”

This song was written in 1893 by teachers Patty and Mildred Hill. An alternate stanza was added 30 years later. It become more popular than the original song and was given a new title. Few know that “Happy Birthday to You” was Western Union’s first ever singing telegram.

Modern candles

Since the invention of electricity, candles as sources of light have been put on the back burner because they are inefficient, providing more heat than light while also polluting the air. In spite of all these drawbacks, published industry figures say worldwide candle sales per year run somewhere between US$4 billion and US$8 billion a year. Billions of candles a year are used to set moods, soothe the senses, cast warm glows, provide pleasant aromas, and chase away bugs.

The National Candle Association says 1/3 of all candle sales happen during the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas. In the USA alone, 10,000 pounds of scents are added to 1 billion pounds of wax each year to make candles nine out of ten US consumers burn within one week of purchase. Uncredited “candle industry research” indicates the four most important characteristics are color, cost, scent and shape. Which do you think is #1? That same report tells us three-fourths of candle purchase decisions are driven by scent.

I nosed around a bit and found a candle research study

The study’s title suggests there has been some concern over the extra pollution caused by scented candles. Published in the journal Environment International, the report tested scented candles versus unscented candles. The report, with no sense of irony, tells us that candle purchasers view candles as appropriate gifts. Well, sure.

The Advisory Committee for the study includes members of the European Candles Association, the National Candle Association and representatives of candle trade associations, candle manufacturers and the major fragrance houses that supply the global candle industry with those 10,000 scents in five categories: floral, fresh, fruit, oriental, and spices & edibles. No mention is made of any plans to update one of those category names to something more modern.

For nearly 10,000 words, the report drones on, making it hard for even a study geek like me to slog through the dense and artfully obfuscatory prose, always acknowledging the negatives (that’s science) but also always downplaying them (that’s marketing). There are lots of complicated formulas with lots of decimals, superscripts and greek letters and symbols. Most of it is impenetrable and it’s hard to believe it’s not done deliberately. There are a lot of statistical gymnastics on display – take a look for yourself. 

When I came across the term fragrance load, I couldn’t help but think that’s a great description of something we’ve all experienced when someone drenched in perfume gets in the elevator with us. Cunningly downplayed is the conclusion that scented candles emit more pollution than unscented ones because they contain many more chemical compounds, many of them nasty. You can read Measurement and Evaluation of Gaseous and Particulate Emissions from Burning Scented and Unscented Candles by clicking on this link.

And if scents drive candle decisions as they say, then 750,000 million pounds of chemically scented candle wax are polluting our homes each year, but as they say down in the holler, “Don’t it smell purty, though?”

Want to read more articles like this? Click here for free, no-ad, no-tracking access to the hundreds of articles David has written since 2016. He covers lots of topics, always showing there is more to things than meet the eye.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.