On "Not Screwing Up Ritual Candles"

by Raemon2 min read27th Sep 20207 comments

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Secular SolsticeRitualPetrov DayCommunityPractical
Personal Blog

I do a lot of experimentation with rational ritual. Rituals often use lots of candles. I used to just buy Random Cheap Candles. Then I kept running into problems. Now I have very strong opinions about what kinds of candles to buy.

The first problem was simply that I wanted impressive photos for Secular Solstice – I wanted to show off how it felt to people who'd never seen it before. I found myself constantly re-using the photos from Bay Solstice 2013, where the organizer (Ben Landau Taylor) had splurged on large, satisfying-looking-from-a-distance candles:

The second problem was... candles are actually pretty logistically complicated. They drip wax. Rituals often require you to light one candle off another, but only certain shapes of candle can do that. Some candles burn really quickly and flicker out halfway through your ritual.

I spent several years buying lots of candles and trying them out. I kinda became this guy:

Okay, I don't actually spend $3,600 a month, I've spent maybe $250 total. And I'm going to pitch you on spending... maybe $50, which I claim is Worth It.

I've tried to tell people "man, you should really get some nice candles for your rituals", but other people hadn't experimented with different types of candles and they were like "really? does it matter? idk man, they're candles. Are you sure you're not just getting absurdly into candles and having the Joe Biden Sandwhich Photo effect?"

I can't be 100% confident my aesthetic opinions are valid. But, I am confident there are at least some serious logistical concerns:

The Logistical Concerns

Problems you'll run into with candles:

1. You often need each candle to light other candles. This works much better if they are thin/long taper candles rather than fatter votive, tealight or pillar candles. It is basically impossible if the candle is in a jar.

2. Because you need thin candles, you need candle holders so they stay upright. Woe to the person who buys a bunch of taper candles and then realizes they have to awkwardly jury-rig candeholders out of aluminum foil at the last minute.

3. You need candles to not run out, so you want fairly large and/or slow-burning ones. Woe to the person's important candle symbolizing human civilization flickers out halfway through the Petrov Day ceremony.

4. Candles can drip wax, which can be annoying. They work better with a candleholder that can catch the wax as it falls. (Candleholders vary in size, some catch a lot of wax, some basically none). There are also some candles designed to drip less wax (marketed as "dripless, though my experience is that they drip non-zero)

  • Note: this also means you shouldn't put candles on a carpet or other hard-to-clean surface
  • Also note that you'll drip less wax if, rather than take Candle #1 and use it to light Candle #2, you take Candle #2 and light if off candle #1 (because candle #1 will have accumulated a bunch of liquid wax which will spill when you tip it sideways)
    • (this option trades off against "sometimes it feels more symbolically potent for Candle #1 to be the one lighting Candle #2, rather than vice-versa. Make good choices based on how much you hate cleaning up wax)

Aesthetics

If you believe me that Nice Looking Candles Are Better, and/or you want them to show up nicely in photographs, you probably also want large candles. They feel heftier in your hand. 

On the flipside: if you're in a global pandemic and you're doing rituals over Zoom, there actually is such a thing as Too Big A Candle. If you're sitting in a small space where the camera must be very close to the candles, it don't be able to see 8 different tall taper candles. (You can either solve this by getting somewhat shorter taper candles, or by arranging in advance to be able to put the camera a bit farther away)

Recommendation:

This all adds up to: you probably want slow burning, dripless taper candles with candleholders. In situations where I don't care about lighting one candle off another, I also enjoy large pillar candles.

Here are the candles I currently use – they're around $30 for 30 slow-burning candles. If you only do a few rituals a year, this will basically last you forever. And if you end up using candles all the time... well, $1 a candle isn't too bad. I chose these over some more expensive options that didn't feel that much better, and over cheaper options that constantly dripped wax everywhere.

Here are the candle holders I use with them (about $20).

I also sometimes use larger pillar candles. You can either get a set of 6 medium ones or this variety pack of small/medium/large. I use these to light pathways through dark tunnels during some more, um, adventurous rituals that I've led.

You can see them in a variety of stages of burning here:

On the right, my Petrov Day "Flourishing Future" Candle - never actually lit, only reflected on.

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Rituals often use lots of candles.

This sentence clashed with my world model so hard I had to stop here and think. Not only because I didn't have this association between rituals and candles from my own culture, but also that I didn't know candles were so frequent in rituals elsewhere. Rituals here in India also frequently involve flame, but almost always in the form of clay or brass lamps. Candles are more of a functional, utilitarian thing, and I'd subconsciously assumed that was the case worldwide (except a few occasional events like Hanukkah).

In my mind, candles are associated with being poor - having power cuts, not being able to afford emergency backup lights, and so having to endure the slight smoke and poor light of a candle. I'd seen the Twitter conversation above previously, and imagined someone buying $3600 worth of plain white 1¢ candles - I saw it as just weird millenial humour, never did it cross my mind that someone might actually buy expensive candles and spend comparable amounts.

I don't know if I have a point, except to say it's weird to be part of a group that generally has similar interests, and then suddenly get reminded of jarring IRL differences in our lives that this medium can't - usually - convey.

At first I thought this whole article seemed a bit obvious, but then I realized that I grew up churched; these considerations were basically burned into my brain from a young age. You came to all the right conclusions here!

For an outdoor ceremony, you'll want to avoid open flames because (a) the wind might blow them out, and (b) they'll attract bugs that die in the flame. Instead you can use lanterns like these. (Peel off the branding sticker for a cleaner look.) The aesthetic ends up being more rugged/industrial than fancy/refined.

Practical considerations when using these lanterns:

  1. The glass window and the upper surface of the lantern get extremely hot (enough to boil water, at least). Use an oven mitt to manipulate these parts.
  2. For this reason, opening and closing the window is cumbersome. To light the lantern or transfer the flame, use a thin bamboo skewer that you can insert through the gap in the top of the lantern. When you're done with the skewer, douse it in a jar of sand (not water, so you can reuse it).
    • This method also loses the "Can­dle #1 [being] the one light­ing Can­dle #2, rather than vice-versa" distinction.
    • What does the skewer itself symbolize? Perhaps "the generations who died carrying #1 forward to #2 without ever seeing the result" (I dunno, I just made that up now; maybe it doesn't need to symbolize anything.)
  3. The flame can be extinguished by pushing down the top of the lantern (using an oven mitt) into its "collapsed" position, and then placing an inverted glass bowl on top of it for 3-5 seconds to choke off its oxygen supply. (Glass, rather than ceramic or metal, so that you can see when the flame has gone out.) Then un-collapse the lantern, again using the oven mitt. (See the video on the Amazon page for a demo of collapsing/uncollapsing.)
    • Or, you can blow sharply through the top of the lantern, but this is difficult if you're wearing a mask.
    • If you've opened the window in order to pour wax from the candle, collapsing+uncollapsing is the easiest way to re-close the window.

I feel obligated to link to my house's Petrov Day "Bad/X-risk Future" candle.

One thing we use with candles at my zen center in addition to a holder/base is a follower, basically a "cap" for the candle with a hole in it for the wick and some of the top of the candle. The follower has to be sized to match the size of the candle, but it's quite nice to have one since it prevents wax from dripping since it's contained in a little pool by the follower that gets burned off before lower wax can melt.

Obviously mostly for pillars, not tapers.

Can you link to a picture of what you mean?