Light of my life: why do candles feel so important right now?

Buying a nice candle is a small comfort at a time when days blend into each other, stringing themselves together to form one huge, interminable bummer

Candles are entering that territory where the purchase of one can feel like both a form of self-care and self-expression.
Candles are entering that territory where the purchase of one can feel like both a form of self-care and self-expression. Photograph: Getty Images
Candles are entering that territory where the purchase of one can feel like both a form of self-care and self-expression. Photograph: Getty Images

Last modified on Tue 12 Jan 2021 11.19 EST

Something was missing from Elizabeth Black’s car.

In July, she and her husband had sold their house in Seattle and packed up all of their belongings, which the movers would bring to Boston. The couple decided to drive there, and in the car were just the necessities: their two labradors, two suitcases, an ice cooler. But Black couldn’t hit the road without one other thing.

“I did bring a candle,” says Black, who runs recruiting for a legal tech company. “I didn’t know where we were going to be!”

The candle in question was Citronella: best for warding off mosquitos. But when the movers took weeks to arrive, Black, tired of sleeping on an air mattress in an empty apartment, drove to Bloomingdale’s and bought a much fancier Diptyque candle. (A standard Diptyque candle costs about $70.)

“I will light it once every other week. I want to savor it. It’s like a nice wine, there has to be a special occasion to light it,” says Black.

Candles are some of the most ordinary household items – in many regards, completely and utterly forgettable. But in the pandemic, with so many Americans relegated to our homes, they’ve become a category of home good worth splurging on. One report found that while makeup sales fell in 2020 compared with the year before, fragrances – which includes candles and perfume – have been quietly rebounding.

A very fancy (and pricey) candle: Diptyque.
A very fancy (and pricey) candle: Diptyque. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Hunturdeals

In the pandemic, customers are searching for “new scents”, according to the CEO of L Brands, which owns Bath & Body Works; today, increasingly fancy, conceptual, aspirational candles are cropping up everywhere to meet that demand. As such, candles are entering that territory where the purchase of one can feel like both a form of self-care and self-expression.

Whether that’s a blessing or a curse depends on your capacity not to be overwhelmed by choice: Birthdate Candles take inspiration from your birthday, selling a different candle for every day of the year. Brands like Homesick and Passport Seven promise to capture the allure of a physical place – Baltimore (smells like cardamom, clove leaf, amber), both northern California (pear, apple, vanilla) and southern California ( orange, lemon, jasmine), the United Kingdom (bergamot, grass, rain).

A brand called Anecdote offers scents like Bottomless Mimosas (straightforward enough) and Old Flame (reportedly smells like “bad mistakes and repeat offenders”, though why you would want to bring that energy into your house, I don’t know.)

Buying yourself a nice candle is a small comfort at a time when days blend into each other, stringing themselves together to form one huge, interminable bummer. They also serve the additional purpose of helping delineate time and space. Since March, for those of who can shelter-in-place, our worlds have collapsed into one – the living room becomes where you go to work, pop into a happy hour, take a barre class, or cry during therapy. Lighting a candle can help shift your mood and transform the space, even if temporarily.

“There are certain candles I want if I’m going to take a shower after a super stressful day,” says Black. “And then there’s [candles] on my desk; I still have a lot of work to do, but it’s a reminder that it’s Christmas time.”

But when it comes to smells, some candles suffer from the problem of overstating what they can deliver. “I have this citrus-y, spicy candle that – according to the label – is supposed to remind of you sipping Mai Tais on the beach in Maui,” says Laura Rico, who has been working from home in the pandemic. “That would be nice,” she adds with a laugh.

The pandemic has been kindling for the aspirational candle market, which has been growing for years. In addition high-end, status brands like Diptyque and Jo Malone, an ever-widening array of more affordable candles – in the $30 to $40 range – can now be found in stores, and increasingly, on Instagram (Rico says she started getting targeted ads after shopping around online for them).

Since she started working from home, Rico has been dusting off old candles that had been sitting forgotten around the house, and lighting them to set the mood while cooking in the evenings.

“We really only leave [the house] for essential activities,” says Rico, who lives in Orange county. “It’s nice to take some joy in the things I can do at home.”

At a time when working can blur into not-working, when weekends can feel like a Google calendar invite that no one acknowledged or responded to, lighting a candle can feel like being the master of your own, little private ceremonies. “There’s a ritual aspect,” says Black. “I unpacked all of our Christmas boxes, which I haven’t seen since last year, and found all of these candles I bought at after-Christmas sales.”

And even though lighting a nice candle can be done in total silence, when it’s unclear how long it will be before you can hug a friend again, there can be a social component to it too. My friend Abigail told me she did a gift exchange where they decided the only gifts would be candles.

“One of my friends always invites me to go camping with her,” says Abigail Koffler. A cedar-scented candle from Boy Smells, an LA-based brand that has collaborated with Kacey Musgraves, caught her eye as an alternative to schlepping through the woods. It was my way of saying , ‘I’m never going to go camping with you, but I want you to have this.’”

Whenever one of them lights their candles, they text each other to comment on how great it smells.