The Edifying Flame of Candlelight: A Unit 4 Opportunity

Dec 11, 2020 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


Have you ever tuned in to hear Andrew Pudewa speak at a Classical Consortium event? If so, you've probably also enjoyed hearing Professor Carol. Each year she offers a free online Advent calendar. Recently she published a blog post that reflects on the history of candles. She has graciously given permission to us to post it here as well. It would make an excellent and apropos Level B or C source text for a Unit 4 assignment during this holiday season.

As you read through it, begin to think about how to organize the writing, beginning with the subject of the assignment (candles). Next, plan for the succeeding steps:

  1. Consider potential topics.

    1. To know how many topics to plan for, first consider how many paragraphs you want your students to write.

    2. For younger, less experienced writers, you might want just one paragraph.

    3. Older, experienced Structure and Style students will be able to tackle more paragraphs. You might decide you want two or three.

  2. Create the key word outline. Don’t forget the topic-clincher rule!

  3. Have your students write up the assignment and send it to their editor.

  4. When the editing work is done, enjoy the final result. Maybe even light a candle to celebrate!


by Professor Carol

Blink. The electricity goes off and we fall into a tizzy. Kids fret over the loss of the Internet, mom worries about the food in the freezer, and someone voices the concern: “How are we gonna charge our phones?”

The calmest adult will start looking for the candles. True, LED lanterns and flashlights do the work of candles more easily, and arguably better. But even in households replete with those items, someone is still likely to light a candle. Why? One answer is: few things affect us like the edifying flame of candlelight, particularly in situations where we are surrounded by darkness.

In today’s world, darkness is dispelled ordinarily by the flick of a switch or a word to Alexa. It takes a widespread power failure to comprehend just how dark nighttime really is. In the midst of such darkness, though, we understand a number of things better, starting with our dependence on electricity. We also relate better to the metaphors of light found across literature and particularly in the Scriptures. We may find our inner voices singing simple texts like this old-fashioned Sunday-School song:

It is better to light just one little candle
Than to stumble in the dark.

The candles we enjoy today are a modern invention if you take a long view of history. References to wrappings of vines, leaves, cloth, or other material dipped in oil or tallow, forming torches, cylinders, or pyramid-like structures that could feed flames date back to the Ancient Egyptians. Archeological evidence shows holders and racks used for such sources of light as well. But some parts of the world were less advanced than others in their candle technology.

For example, the Middle East did not acquire the candle until the late Roman Empire. That means references throughout the Bible translated as candles refer instead to torches or to commonly used oil-burning, small clay lanterns. Indeed, the candles we place in the Menorah for Hanukkah represent small lanterns—lanterns fed by one day’s worth of oil that wondrously stayed replenished for all eight days of the Festival of Booths.

Candles underwent technological improvements in the centuries after Christ. By the time of Constantine (4th century AD), candles similar to ours had entered into Christian worship and, of course, taken an indispensable role in daily (or nightly) life. These candles were made primarily of tallow (animal fat) and burned with a sooty smoke.

Over the next centuries candles became more pleasant, efficient, and ultimately cheaper to use. The first lovely innovation came when clever medieval folk discovered beeswax as an alternative to tallow. Beeswax burned clean and sweet, but was expensive, so more innovations were needed. In the 18th century, it was discovered that spermaceti (whale oil) had many of the same desirable qualities as beeswax.

Next came the welcome spread of paraffin wax, developed in the mid 19th century when a chemist discovered how to separate it out from petroleum oil. Paraffin burned cleaner than tallow, was far more affordable than beeswax, and once something called stearic acid was added, its burning-temperature became ideal for candle-making. Finally, a polished, affordable process for making the modern candles became standard, albeit at the very time when candles played a diminished practical role in most of the world.

But candles did not disappear. Of course, they had to make their ritual appearance on birthday cakes! Now don’t laugh: the National Candle Association estimates that 1 billion pounds of wax is used for candle-making annually in the US alone. With 35% of that wax consumed during the Christmas season, a good deal of candle wax is left over for birthday candles and other decorative purposes.

So if the “what’s” of candle-history tell a good story, the “why’s” tell an even better one. Clearly, candles long have given people light. But in today’s world, why do people still embrace candles?

Like many things, the farther removed in time one is from the practical necessity (and problems) of items, the more romanticized they become. Both the popular embrace of candles today and the renewed preference for gas stoves baffled those in my mother’s generation who grew up amid dangerous versions of both. During power failures in my childhood, my mother became visibly nervous about bringing out the candles. The entire time they were lit, she was afraid—a fear that linked back to the dangerous tenements of her Brooklyn childhood. For her, the idea that someone would choose to light a candle, or for that matter, want to cook with gas, struck her as risky or foolish.

And she was right, in a sense. How many toppled candles alone have started disastrous fires throughout human history? Plus, for centuries internal spaces were overtaken by soot and smoke. In short, it wasn’t easy to live in a world where light and heat came from open flames.

Furthermore, lighting the dark was costly. Yale economist William Nordhouse mentioned in a 1994 study that the average worker, before electric lighting, would need to work five hours for enough wages to purchase an hour’s worth of light equivalent to what could be produced today for a fraction of a cent by a 60-watt incandescent bulb. This kind of comparison helps us to understand why the costs of maintaining something like an “eternal flame” in religious and civic contexts was a meaningful gesture. Today, of course, we would walk past such a flame and say, “Oh, that’s nice, isn’t it?”

And it is nice. It’s lovely to have candles burning when they are used in expressly ceremonial and decorative roles. My first understanding, as an adult, of how lovely candles can be came from living in West Germany in the early 1980s. Germans have a wonderful word that is hard to translate: Gemütlichkeit. Gemütlichkeit works best as a nominal (noun) form of “cozy,” so coziness will have to do. But there is nothing cute or diminished about Gemütlichkeit. Rather it is a powerful cultural force wherein people value the creation of a close circle of friendship, intimacy, and sharing. They expend time and effort to nurture that circle. A big part of that Gemütlichkeit happens while sitting around a table upon which a decorative candle likely will be burning.

Back in the 1980s, I was floored to find many shelves in German stores devoted to candle paraphernalia: Teelichte (faceted crystal holders for the metal-encased mini-candles that keep teapots hot), candle-lighters, and glass, brass, ceramic or wooden holders for every size of candle, some designed with shiny metal or mirrors to beautify the flames. If all of this existed back home in the US, I surely hadn’t seen it. Moreover, I was astonished at how much time people would spend sitting around a candle together, chatting, nibbling, drinking, sharing, or just plain relaxing while they enjoyed one another’s company—the first step in establishing Gemütlichkeit. Later I would learn that such an approach to life (it is bigger than a tradition) still flourishes across Europe, Russia, and anywhere else on the globe where the cranked-up pace of daily life has not obliterated it.

So, during Advent 2020, in addition to your Advent wreath, you may want to enjoy more candlelight. It’s also good to teach children how to handle candles when they are old enough. Remember at what young age our pioneer forefathers would give children responsibility for building fires and keeping the hearth burning, so, yes, with instruction and supervision, youngsters can do it.

More importantly, let the candlelight do its healing work in your family. Just as candles blaze with beauty on an altar, they can transform the atmosphere in a home. Around a candle one wants to linger longer after a meal (remember, most of us do not need to rush off to an event, as we did last year and will next year). In lieu of the light of Netflix or iPhones, set up a block of evening time defined by the semi-darkness of a room warmed by candles. Yes, you’ll get protests. But give it some time. Start a story or a song, launch a recollection that will trigger more recollections, let your imaginations run wild as you plan a future family trip, or simply trust the silence, and see what those candles can do. If nothing else, the experience will remind the kids how grateful they were for those candles the last time the power went out, and surely will be again (Professor Carol).

After reading the post, do you have a deeper appreciation for candles? What a fascinating history they have! Did you think of any potential topics? Some of the topics we thought of include the early history of candles, the role of candles in the German observation of Gemütlichkeit, problems with candles, and candles and their use in the home of today.

We hope you enjoyed this article and Unit 4 writing experience. If you have any of your students write paragraphs based on this source text, please share them with us by emailing them to Additionally, submit them to Magnum Opus Magazine, IEW’s premier showcase of student work. We would love to share them with a broader audience.

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