These days it seems to be synthetic holly or vanillin, or sugar cookie, but once in my childhood it was the scent of bayberries. Now this no doubt seems very old fashioned indeed to people who may still be in their twenties, but the time was when candles were made up and down the eastern seaboard of the colonies using the berries of this one shrubby plant, Myrica pensylvanica.
The reason was that the berries were little wax factories, and so the settlers didn’t have to go to the nuisance of bee keeping, or the expense of oil. Bayberries along about September, have enough wax in them that you can boil them up, about one and a half quarts to produce one candle, an eight inch candle says Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia. All you have to do is boil them for five minutes, skim off the wax and close it up in an airtight container, and of course then begin the process all over again.
When you have enough bayberry wax you can pour it into a candle mold with the wicking material of your choice already strung through it, and when you have heated up your wax, you pour it into the mold and let it cool in your refrigerator. Apparently, you heat the cooled mold for a moment or two in your oven or under your broiler to get the wax to heat enough to be released from the mold. The result is the genuine article greeny-gray bayberry candles of the sort your great, great, great, well anyway your ancestors made.
Anyway, all of this is theoretical for me. I’ve never been able to find enough bayberries to manage even one candle, let alone a set of them. But I wish very much that I had. It’s one of those smells that takes us right back to the eighteenth century in the Americas, it‘s the kind of slightly spicy, waxen smell that John Adams and George Washington certainly smelled in their time in those paneled rooms always painted in surprisingly bright colors like turquoise blue. You might call bayberry candles one of the scents that are a connection to our collective past, and once in a while that’s got to be worth smelling.
We used to have one every Thanksgiving, bought at a local shop in New Market Maryland that dealt in antiquities and carried the candles as an afterthought, a charming adjunct to the Jacobean chest you had just purchased. Bayberry candles are not as chic as Rigaud candles, not as ubiquitous as Yankee candles, and certainly not as au courant as niche house candles, and probably most people would not care for them. They’re in the same class as horehound candies, a curiosity, and not much more.
But for me, they are the scent of fall in Maryland and Virginia when I was a child, and far more intertwined with memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas than anything else. They are the only kind of scented candles I burn, and that includes cinnamon or sugar cookie ones. I doubt if John Adams ever smelled anything like those, and what would he have made of them?