The Way it Was: A lot of lore from days of yore about candles

by John Straka Published:

I'm old enough to know firsthand about the days when homes were lighted by kerosene lamps. They were replaced by natural gas lamps before electric lights became common in every home.

I have an old kerosene lamp that we used when our power went out due to bad weather. Our house on Theodore Street had a gas pipe in the kitchen for use with gas lighting, but I never saw it used. My Mom told of how when she was a girl, one of her chores was to clean and refill the kerosene lamp that sat on the dining room table. As a boy, I was familiar with kerosene lanterns used to mark construction sites and warn of the danger of falling into a hole in the street or sidewalk.

What did people do for lighting before kerosene lamps? They used candles.

Candles evolved over a long period of time, beginning with different kinds of portable fires. Torches, made from fiber material soaked with some kind of oil, grease or wax needed only to have someone invent a wick to form the first primitive candle.

The first candles were expensive and not used by poor people. They were soft, melted easily and didn't last very long. They gave off some smoke and unpleasant odors. Some were made of tallow (the fat from a cow), whale oil, paraffin or other kinds of oil. Added ingredients made the candles stronger and less likely to bend out of shape when warmed.

Some candles were marked so they could tell time. As the candle burned down, the marks showed how many hours had passed since it was lit.

An organization known as The Christophers, used a slogan that said, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." That meant instead of complaining about how dark it is, or how bad something is, it's better to do something about it. Even if that something is very little, it's better than doing nothing.

A longstanding tradition is putting candles on a birthday cake. Usually it's one candle for each year. Sometimes an extra one is added for good luck. I just had a birthday last month and there was no way I was going to have 95 candles on a birthday cake.

Part of the ritual was that the smoke and light rising from the candles would get the birthday person's secret wish granted. I always wished for another birthday.

I remember a real old joke about candles that depended on knowing that candles were expensive and not lit unless there was good reason to do so. It's about a very sick man, in bed, being tended by his younger brother. A candle burned by the sick man's bedside. When the caretaker was retiring for the night, he said to his dying brother, "If you feel yourself slipping away, don't forget to blow out the candle."

Candles, being open fires, were and still are, dangerous. The flame can ignite anything that burns. Curtains, drapes, clothing, tablecloths, furniture, bedding, and all kinds of paper products, can start a fire that will destroy property and kill or injure people.

One use for candles that I never understood why anyone would want to do, is to put lighted candles on a Christmas tree. My Mom often told of how at Christmas time, many homes were set on fire due to candles igniting the needles on a tree that had dried out. She remembered that happening when she was a girl.

I remember hearing of people using a lighted candle to find a gas leak. Not a good idea. Very dangerous. Same with trying to thaw frozen water pipes with the heat from a burning candle. Children playing with candles often either get burned or they start a fire.

One place where candles have been (and still are) used, is in churches and other places of worship. There is a lot of symbolism in the living flame of a candle. Four candles are lighted, one for each of the weeks of Advent. I believe the menorah has seven candles. Weddings use two candles that are used to light one larger candle to symbolize the joining of two people in holy matrimony.

The soft light from a candle can be used to set a romantic tone to a meal or social gathering. Many people find candlelight soothing and comforting. One of the more modern recent developments is scented candles. I've heard of people using scented candles while relaxing in a hot tub. That's part of modern aromatherapy.

Putting a lighted candle in the front window of a home was a signal to friends, relatives and even strangers that they were welcome to visit. It's like turning on the porch light on Halloween to invite little trick-or-treaters to get their handouts.

Modern automobiles have all kinds of electronic gadgets to do various things that were unheard of a century ago. Now, the owners of even the newest cars are advised to carry a few candles in their emergency kit. It takes only one candle to keep the interior of a car, stranded in a blizzard, warm enough to protect its occupants.

One of my favorite toys was a put-put boat. This little tin boat was powered by a tiny candle. The flame heated a small boiler until the water turned into steam. The steam came out the stern of the boat in bubbles and propelled the tiny craft forward as the steam bubbles made a put-put sound. That was lots of fun.

If this was an old-fashioned letter, I could seal the flap with a few drops of candle wax and an impression of my signet ring. If I had such a ring.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.

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