A bayberry candles is a muddied green -- sort of an olive color -- strongly scented candle originally made from the wax of a species that grows abundantly in North America. Innovative homemakers in Colonial times discovered an extra use for the waxy berries that clustered on bayberry shrubs or small trees. But the wax was time-consuming to produce, so it became a valuable commodity. Its scarcity and value fueled the traditions that grew up around its use during the darkest days of the year.

From Cure-All to Candle

Traditional and Native American medicinal uses for the bayberry were many and varied. The bark and the berries were pounded, dried, powdered, boiled down and turned into poultices, plaster and decoctions for treating diarrhea, jaundice, sore throat, ulcers, gum disease, dysentery and other ailments. But the waxy coating over the stone -- the bayberry is a fruit, not a true berry -- could also be skimmed off and made into brittle but aromatic candle wax. Combined with beeswax, the tapers were quite sturdy, burned cleanly, and they quickly became a prized method of illuminating Colonial-era homes.

Boiled Meat, Bees and Berries

Until Colonial times, most candles were made of tallow, rendered animal fat. It burned brightly but was smelly, smoky and could turn rancid. Beeswax, available in Europe from the Middle Ages on, was too costly for all except the rich. Successful American experiments to recover the wax from bayberries yielded fragrant, smokeless, clean candles that were light-years ahead of the messier animal-fat variety. But the catch was the difficulty of obtaining enough wax. Although bayberries grew everywhere in New England and in the South, it took nearly 18 pounds of the berries to get about 2 pounds of wax. Candles made from labor-intensive wax production were sought after. Some communities passed laws to protect the bayberry crop from early harvest. The result was a high value; bayberry candles became a luxury item, saved for special use. As candle-making was an annual autumn ritual, bayberry candles were set aside for the Christmas holidays.

Yule Legend

The ritual developed around the bayberry candles was a Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve tradition. On the night before Christmas or on New Year's Eve, a bayberry candle was burned -- and it had to be timed to stay alight until after midnight -- to bring a year of prosperity and good fortune to the household. You could not extinguish the candle; it had to be allowed to burn out on its own. If the candle burned down to the socket, abundance would bless everyone participating in the ritual. Because pure bayberry wax tends to be brittle, traditional candles were, so candle-makers mixed the wax with beeswax to help them hold their shape and not fracture. A genuine bayberry candle won't give off a powerful perfume -- those are artificially perfumed candles -- but will emit its fragrance most noticeably when it goes out or is snuffed out.

Legend in Rhyme

A gift of a bayberry candle is an invitation to participate in the holiday ritual. Lighting a symbolic bayberry candle calls for a recitation of the legendary poem: "This bayberry candle comes from a friend / so on Christmas Eve burn it down to the end. / For a bayberry candle burned to the socket, / will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket." A slightly different version of the invocation delivers the same message: "A bayberry candle burned to the socket brings luck to the household, food to the larder and gold to the pocket."