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Column: Am I addicted to scented candles? Perhaps. I’ll try anything to fight the darkness of 2020

Scented candles by Machado
What does the pandemic smell like? A good scented candle.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s how bad it’s gotten: I just ordered a scented-candle-making kit.

I know, I know; I am way behind the curve, to which the wickless, fragrance-free, picked-over shelves of my local Michaels can attest. (Not much I can do with a five-pound bag of soy wax without wicks, is there, Michaels?) So I was forced to turn once again to Amazon, thereby draining any potential “pioneer” spirit from the enterprise. (It’s hard to think of yourself as “getting back to basics” while ordering something online.)

In this case, however, DIY pride is not a factor. I actually know how to make candles, and churn butter, and sew (if graded on a generous curve) a fine seam, because I am old enough to have had several years’ worth of Home Ec, as well as wood and metal shop, thrust upon me by the beneficence of the Maryland State Department of Education.

Nor am I attempting to distract my family with yet another pandemic project. My new hobby is simply a matter of economics: I will be trying to make my own scented candles because I need to stop spending so much damn money on scented candles and I refuse to accomplish this by burning fewer of them.

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Before the pandemic, I had an uneasy relationship with the turn-of-the century boom in the home fragrance industry.

Certainly it is lovely to walk into a fig- or balsam- or hyacinth-scented room (apologies to those who are allergic or bothered by scent). But all those candles and diffusers cost money, often quite a bit, and their growing popularity seemed to be a tell of the new faux-cozy consumerism, a mark of a system that encouraged the notion that money was there to burn. In Los Angeles anyway, the fault lines of gentrification always seemed to lead to a coffee bar and a shop selling $40 candles, often with names like Cashmere.

The furor over Meghan Markle’s penchant for Dyptique, revealed during her recent remote appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” was solid evidence in support of my long-held belief that scented candles were part of the luxury economy, appropriate for holidays, gift-giving and the side tables of the very rich.

So does crisis make moral cowards of us all.

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Amid the pandemic, some are seeking out anachronistic hobbies such as churning butter and candle-making, sending sales of niche products skyrocketing.

I started burning candles at the beginning of the shutdown in order to make the house seem more festive. March was cold, if you remember, and often overcast — even rainy — and my newly re-congregated family needed a lift that did not involve consuming 2,000 extra calories per day in baked goods. And it was just for a month or two, right?

Seven months later, scented candles are now a staple; I buy them with the same regularity I buy milk, turkey burgers and toilet paper. There are used candle jars stashed in every cupboard like the empty bottles of a secret drunk and ashtrays not seen in decades are scattered throughout the house as receptacles for all those burned matches.

And I’m not the only one. My older daughter’s bedroom is awash in apple cinnamon scent in an attempt to keep pace with her Temple University education seasonally as well as academically. She has learned how to trim a wick and uses terms like “a good throw” (referring to the ability of a candle to spread scent).

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Whatever prejudice I had against unlikely formulations and absurd names is long gone. Home Sweet Home, Sweater Weather, Autumn Oak and Charred Juniper blaze away in every room and, yes, my younger daughter was one of those who caused Target to sell out of its Cashmere Vanilla candle after someone on TikTok mentioned that it smelled like the Tom Ford scent favored by Harry Styles.

“When you come home with one that says ‘Live, Laugh, Love,’” my son said recently, “I am going to have to stage an intervention.”

Honestly, if Yankee Candle, Bath & Body Works or Target had any sense of honor, they would name a fragrance after me. Although I’m not sure “earthy anxiety combined with salty hints of sorrow and spicy top notes of fury and fear” would be a bestseller.

Especially since the whole point of all these candles is to create an alternate me, one who lives serenely, in a calmer, saner, more hopeful place and time. A time when how my home smells doesn’t matter so much because I am not in it 24/7.

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As I informed my smart-mouthed son, science has proven that smell is the strongest trigger of memory and emotion — the olfactory bulb runs straight from the nose to the amygdala and hippocampus, parts of the brain most strongly associated with emotion and memory. (Hippocampus Nights — a woodsy fragrance, with a strong patchouli body and a top of balsam and eucalyptus.) And frankly, triggering all the best memories and emotions has become paramount these days. We need to remember a time when we weren’t all stuck at home, our stomachs in permanent churn over pandemic and election anxieties.

Food gives us the immediate sense of satisfaction and comfort. Most important, it shows us that there is still beauty in simple things.

So it really isn’t surprising that while much of the beauty industry is in free-fall — who needs lip liner when there’s no place to go? — home fragrance has grown in leaps and bounds. As Americans shelter at home, we increasingly seek solace in light and scent; candle-making has saved more than a few small businesses.

Faced with financial struggles early in the pandemic, Fresno’s Smoke & Fire came up with a quarantine line of scents including Shelter & Chill, Come Thru Queen and even Our Votes Matter (“infused with Fir, Cypress, Bayberry, a hint of Vanilla, and Eucalyptus”) alongside more traditional varietals including Fireside Chat and, of course, Cashmere Sweater.

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In our house, the blossoms of spring gave way to the citrus of summer and now we are into the mellower aromas of autumn: apple spice, pumpkin spice, amber, musk, a little vanilla (not too much!), fig and cedar. The scents emanating from cheerful little flames not only reassure us that we don’t have COVID-19 (everyone who has never woken feeling a bit crappy and rushed to test their sense of smell, please stand on their head) but also remind us that there are things, many important things, that exist implacably and restoratively beyond the reach of current events.

Yes, it may still be 100 degrees at 10 a.m. here in Southern California, but it is autumn somewhere. Or will be. The pandemic cannot forbid the changing color of leaf, the emergence of naked tree; it cannot banish those bright sunny days that dissolve into gold, then amethyst, then starry shivery black. (Climate change can, however, which is why it is important to vote by Nov. 3, the wiles of pumpkin spice notwithstanding.)

COVID-19 may curtail this year’s experience of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas but it can’t excise their reality. As the days grow longer (and hopefully cooler), our experience of the upcoming holidays and the seasonal shifts will be different but they can still be festive, still be happy.

It’s a lot to ask of a few tumblers of scented wax, but then I was raised Catholic and everyone knows about Catholics and their deep attachment to candles, offered up, with prayers, in memory of the dead and hope for the living. The various aromas that scent so many homes these days form their own kind of continuous prayer: that someday soon, we will not need the therapeutic power of ylang ylang and lavender, apple and clove to soothe nerves frazzled by confinement, worry and the perpetual aggravation of a news cycle that has done its utmost to make Dorothy Parker’s phrase “What fresh hell is this?” mundane and unfunny.

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After all, it is better to light a single candle than sit and curse the darkness — and if the darkness fights back, then a little pumpkin spice should do the trick.


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