The Smell of American Holidays

Northern Bayberry

Northern Bayberry

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.

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? (This is a re-post but my affection for bayberry candles hasn’t changed.)

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5 thoughts on “The Smell of American Holidays

  1. A correction: The Coty outlet in Sanford, NC may still be open for business. Check the website, I wasn’t sure.

    The gray-green bayberry candle. Ah, yes.

    Someone gave me one years ago, it was so meaningful. I was ignorant of its value or history, thought bayberry was simply a scent, but the wax itself came from berries. Nice.

    At Christmastime there’s a special fondness for nature’s bounty, the magnolia leaves, cinnamon sticks, green pine and cedar, green still living stuff in the woods.

    Sorta Victorian, how they loved birds and feathers and now we string cranberries and go with the clip-on redbirds for Christmas trees.

    I still like walnuts sprayed gold,and pinecones sprayed gold or silver. Natural items like those (maybe minus the spray paint, ha ha) used to be freely available to rural homes.

    Nature’s fragrance is unbeatable.

    The bayberry would be a part of that aura of lovely fresh nature in the closed up, fireplace heated houses. Bayberry candles would be fragrant and useful in non-electric houses. Christmas is a time for history, we cling to Dickens. And of course the nativity scene itself raw and real with hay and animals and stars.


    P.S.———–If any perfume lovers drive I-85 past Smithfield, NC in that general area you’ll find an exit to a giant store called J-R’s. It looks like a tobacco outlet for cigarettes but it has the most amazing perfume department, all at outlet prices.

    If you’re traveling north or south along I-85, worth a stop.

    There I got some Boucheron in the little round donut shaped bottle w/ hole in center, and some Lolita Lempicka a couple of years ago. Also D&G La Lune and my fave Maya with the red and black Spanish dancer colors on bottle cap.

    I got Worth’s “Je Revien” and dozens of little spritzy, tiny bottles that were only $3 or $4, perhaps purse size, things like Sunflowers, Old Navy, Jovan White Musk, not the high end stuff but delightful.

    I bought my first bottle of Bal a Versailles.

    J-R Outlet looks like nothing, it’s a big white concrete block bore (they do have restrooms for travelers)

    but they have the latest perfumes, old classics, and weird items like sampler bottles that aren’t new but have 80% of the product.

    It’s really like a whirling dervish joy for me there, I just go mad, everything seems possible.

    They carry some of the older stuff like Charlie, Charlie Red? Mediterranean, also stuff by Jacklyn Smith, Mariah Carey, Glow by J-Lo, “Still” by J-Lo, and of course Jessica Simpson stuff and Curious by Britney Spears and Paris Hilton has lots of her line there.

    J-R has all the old flames if you’re looking for goldies, but they have the newest boxed sets for gift giving right off the latest magazine ad

    iirc…this was my impression, my last trip was 2015—fun for all.

    I’ve been twice, but it’s a 10-hour drive from me now, sigh…

    You might check it out if you’re near Smithfield, N.Carolina or if you drive I-85 a lot.

  2. Sorry, another correction. I waxed prolific about the JR Cigar Outlet with its many perfumes. However, online research informs me that JR has cut a lot of employees Sept. 2015 and is major downsizing to focus on tobacco, craft beer, cigars, so the perfume department may be history. I don’t know.

    I am so sorry if so. I don’t know for sure.

    But please Don’t make a special long drive to NC to JR Outlet for perfumes before finding out more.

  3. So sorry to hear about the downsizing of JR Cigar-that is a lost resource!

    As a matter of fact I think I may have heard of this outlet in The Emperor of Scent, a biography of Luca Turin, because I think he was described as stopping at a large perfume outlet and coming out with a crate of perfume. Better him than me, as I never can deal with too much perfume on my premises at one time.

    Natural scents for holidays are unbeatable and I only wish I had realized that the bayberry harvesting season is brief and brought home a bucket-oh well there is always next year.

  4. I had a wonderful bayberry candle as a child, which we got at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn. I haven’t seen a real one in years. When I was living in New Jersey, I planted some bayberry plants, intending to make candles out of the berries. They grew into magnificent shrubs (and the leaves smelled great), but the birds always ate the berries before I managed to harvest them for candles.

    1. You have described the problem-exactly-the birds always seem to get them. Really if you want bayberry candles you have to start early in berry season and pick!

      They are rather beautiful shrubs though, I agree, and am thinking of planting some near our house.

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