True Bayberry Candles - A Colonial Tradition

Hello friends,

Each year, I try my hand at a new craft for my holiday gifting to selected friends and family.  This year, inspired by a request from my friend, June, I decided to make true bayberry candles.  June's family has a beach home in New England and she has a nice stand of bayberry bushes.  Knowing my penchant for artisan crafting and historical techniques June has been asking me to give bayberry wax a try.

Bayberry is also known as wax myrtle, wax berry, or candle berry.  The bayberry bushes grow in many places around the globe and do well in sandy and marshy areas of Northeast near the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lake beaches.

The American bayberry grows 3–8 ft. The foliage is evergreen, shiny leaves.  The bayberry leaves, berries and bark have a balsamic aroma. The small berries grow in clusters and are covered with a crust of a greenish-white waxy substance . Herbalists use tinctures of the herb for various medicinal purposes.

In colonial times, ordinary candles were often made from rancid oils, fats and tallows which produced an unsightly smoky flame and unpleasant odor.  The bayberries were gathered and boiled to release the wax.  The wax was collected and used for fine quality candles.   The boiled berries and waters were utilized for remedies but the wax was highly prized.  The scarce berries and extraction process added value to the wax and established the traditions that grew up around its use to dispel the darkest days of the year with the beauty of the light.

Bayberry wax candles were cherished for their fine quality.  They produced a bright light, minimal smoke and a delicate pleasant aroma.  Real bayberry wax has a very faint herbal aroma. It doesn't carry the scent enough to call a fragrance. Many chandlers add fragrance, but I chose to leave the candles natural to maintain a product true to its roots. The labor intensive process, yielding  about a pound of wax for every 5 pounds of berries, precluded the wax from being used for everyday.  The bayberry candles were reserved for gifting and special occasions.

June sent me a huge box of bayberries that filled a big bucket.   I have never seen them before, they do feel waxy and I could smell the aroma when I opened the box.

I filled a large enamel pot with berries, covered them with water and set them to boil.  Once the water came to a boil I covered the pot and allowed it to cool.

  The wax rose to the top which allowed me to easily remove it once it cooled.  The bayberry wax is very brittle, it is almost like glass.  I placed the wax into my candle wax pot and melted it again so I could filter it to clean it again and remove any of the tiny particles.  I poured it through layers of cheesecloth.

The wax is a grayish green color and doesn't retain a lot of the fragrance of the berry.  In order to have a usable wax for dipping, it is necessary to add another wax as the bayberry wax alone would shatter.  You can use paraffin, soy or beeswax.  I chose my Amish beeswax because beeswax is better for dipping candles.  Beeswax has more viscosity when melted so it creates a thicker layer with each dip making the process a little quicker as well as producing a quality candle. If you don't have access to fresh bayberries, you can purchase bayberry wax ready to use.

I tied a large heavy nut to the bottom of the candle wicking as a weight to aid in the dipped candle remaining straight.  Then the wicking was hung from skewers using binder clips to keep a separation between the candles.

The dipping technique consists of simply dipping the weighted wicking into the melting pitcher allowing each layer to cool before the next dip.  The process is repeated until the candle is at the desired thickness.  There is a learning curve, my first attempts yielded candles that were rather lumpy and uneven but I got better with practice.

Once completed, I cut off the weight and rolled the bottom of the candle on a hot pan to form a tapered end so it would be an easier fit for the candle holder.

I did have to add more beeswax to keep enough wax in the melting pitcher so I could have enough depth to continue dipping.  As a result, my later batches have a higher ratio of bees wax to bayberry wax so they lack the darker green color but still have true bayberry wax content.  All in all, I only got a few candles that were suitable for gifting but certainly was an interesting process that garnered a great appreciation of the old time craft of chandlers.  And finally, a sense of satisfaction as I take in the sight of the end results hanging to cool!

The Legend of Bayberry 

Tradition holds that you gift a true bayberry candle to your friends with this little poem:

"This Bayberry candle comes from a friend. So on this holiday burn it down to the end. Because a Bayberry candle burned to its socket, brings good luck, good health and wealth to your pocket."

The ritual developed around the bayberry candles for either Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve.  A bayberry candle is lit and it is to be timed to stay lit until after midnight.  This will bring a year of prosperity and good fortune to the household. You should not extinguish the candle; it should be allowed to burn out on its own. If the candle burned down to the socket, abundance would bless everyone participating in the ritual

Legend has it that the Bay Tree gave shelter to the holy family during a storm. It was rewarded in that lightning is never to strike it. Sweethearts who are separated at Christmas should light bayberry candles and the tradition says they will be united by way of the gentle scent.  

The final presentation of the candles - wrapped with simple raffia, satin or velvet ribbon, torn jingle bell calico fabric adorned with tiny bells, denim and cording, candle wicking and mulberry papers and feathers.

I hope my family and friends enjoy their handmade gift this year along with wishes for good luck and fortune!

Thanks for visiting,


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