The Smell of American Holidays

CurrierThese 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.

True Bayberry candles (note color) from

True Bayberry candles (note color) from

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?




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13 thoughts on “The Smell of American Holidays

  1. You’re welcome, and I goofed by referring at first to Myrica californica-that’s the pacific coast version. What I grew up with is this Myrica pensylvanica, and that was the one used to make the candles. You used to see it near the seashore on Cape Cod in the same sorts of places that Rosa rugosa grew. Very attractive shrub actually.

  2. Thank you so very much for this column. There was a store near us that, every year around Thanksgiving, would bring in artisans from the Williamsburg compound. The large kettle and the candle dippers would be in the front window for a week. They gave them away for free. With rare exceptions they were the only ones on the table during the holidays. I think, if I were to look, I’d find a few pair in the drawer with the table linens.

    1. And thank you for reminding me of the candle dippers! I hadn’t thought of them for ages, and can’t remember what the origin of our local bayberry candles was, but do remember seeing candle dippers somewhere at work. The huge kettle alone was worth watching.
      Hope you do still have some of the candles left, they have a wonderful scent.

    1. Oh the fakes are painful to contemplate. I suspect my current bayberry candle of being a fake, but now that I know how to make the real ones, think I might take a crack at making some, particularly if we make it to the Cape this summer…

  3. I had a wonderful bayberry candle once, that I got as a child at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.

    Many years later, I grew bayberries at my home in New Jersey, hoping to be able to harvest enough wax to make even a very small candle. But the birds ate all of them long before they were even close to ripe. Just this past fall, I happened to be in the Cleveland Botanic Gardens, where they had the most amazing bayberry bushes–totally covered in berries–surrounding the herb garden, and I wondered how they managed to keep them from being gobbled up.

    1. Your story of the rapacious birds reminds me of every time I tried to hybridize a rose. Some critter would come along and eat the carefully bagged hip.
      I never saw the birds making great inroads on the Cape Cod berries, which makes me wonder if the little dears didn’t bother with the bayberries because there was so much else on the local bird smorgasbord? Maybe that’s the case in the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

  4. Wow! Fascinating post. I knew bayberry was supposed to be a holiday scent, but never knew why. I don’t think I’ve ever smelled a real bayberry candle, only the modern synthetic ones. You make me want to sniff out the real deal. Thanks for entertaining and educating me all at once. Well done 😀
    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

    1. Glad you were entertained!

      You know, I wonder if the holiday association was sort of accidental, because you couldn’t cook down those berries before September, resulting in candles ready about November and December, but who cares, the smell is so warm and spicy. Do try tracking some down if you can, just for the fun of it. They give a TG table a nice touch of old Americana!

  5. And if you don’t have them in Virginia where do you get them these days?

    Colonial Williamsburg, probably for an arm and a leg. I love the idea of making candles out of berries but then, as I may have remarked before, one of my great ambitions in life is to be “Granny” from the Beverly Hillbillies, always cooking up something or other in the back yard. I guess my Scots side is showing here.

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