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Is a candle the world’s worst holiday gift?

An illustration of a pile of burning candles in a fireplace.
(Illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times; Photo by Getty Images)
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I have a confession to make. When it comes to holiday gifting, I’ve always been a bit of a candle curmudgeon. Something about it always struck me as phoning it in, almost like you were handing someone a gift card with a wick.

I’m sure my anti-bougie bias has something to do with the inordinate number of candles stacked floor-to-ceiling in our hall closet, thanks to my better half’s soft spot for high-end pillars, tapers, votives and the occasional tea light. (The upside is all our coats smell like the clearance table at a Yankee Candle Co. The downside is if our house ever caught fire, it’d burn for the better part of a year.) I’m also sure I’m far from alone in feeling this way.

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“Nothing is more basic than gifting someone a candle,” says Women’s Health magazine (a sick burn on the way to “13 Gifts That Are Better Than a Candle”). On the website of home improvement guru Bob Vila, the candle is called out as one of the “10 Gifts You Should Never Give.” (Also on the list? Underwear, pets and gym memberships.)

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It was with this mind-set that I decided to raid the home chandlery to find something for a recent white elephant gift exchange with my colleagues. Because my aversion to candle gifting was well-known to them, I reasoned this to be a win-win-win of sorts: my personal candle count would decrease by one (win one), I’d be imparting a valuable lesson in gift-giving etiquette to my clearly clueless co-workers (win two), and, as an avowed anti-waxxer, not a one of them would suspect I’d done the dirty deed.

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That’s not exactly the way things panned out, though. First, it turned out that I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea. (The other candle culprit turned out to be my editor. Make of that what you will.) Second, instead of recoiling in disgust at the sight of the soy wax cylinder as it was sprung from its wrapping as I’d hoped, my colleagues started to ooh and ahh over it like it was a newborn baby. And finally, after the official horsetrading of the white elephant gift swap was over, a side deal was struck in which, wait for it — the two candles changed hands.

I was baffled. Not only had my point-making plan gone up in flames, it had full-on backfired on me. While, to me, there had barely been a discernible difference (but for the size of the box) between the two candles, one (OK, it was mine) clearly held some special magic that made it more appealing. Was it the exotic French origins? The minimalist packaging? The way it had a heft in the hand like a favorite coffee mug? Or maybe it was this particular candle’s library-inspired scent (partial description: “[t]he velvety quality of the paper embodied in a touch of peach, plum and vanilla ...”).

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Eventually it dawned on me. Thanks to the cornucopia of candlery gifted into our home over the years (thoughtful gestures all, I have no doubt), I’d essentially come down with a case of candle camouflage (a.k.a. “candleflage”), an affliction in which everything before me melts into an indistinguishable swirl of light and pattern. This left me unable to determine how or why one particular wick-tipped lump of wax might strike a chord with someone.

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Maybe I’d spent the last few decades wandering in the darkness of my own ignorance, railing against the idea simply because I couldn’t distinguish one fancy candle from another. And maybe, just maybe, the only way to avoid making the candle feel like the most impersonal of all holiday gifts is to double down and make it feel ultra-personal.

A candle in an amber screw-top jar with a label that reads "Don't do meth in our bathroom."
Wax & Wit’s “Don’t Do Meth in Our Bathroom” candle sends a clear message.
(Wax & Wit)

If you really start drilling down (as I have been for the last couple of days), it turns out you can find a candle tailored to fit just about any person or situation. Is there an antagonist in the screenplay of your life? Consider the Academy Museum X Flores Lane POV: You’re the Villain candle (color: blood red; fragrance: tobacco, dirt and rose).

Got a giftee whose idea of a good time is watching the home team shag balls? Then a Dodger Stadium candle from Homesick might be a home run (top notes: “popcorn, Tajin spice, crisp beer”). My mom, who spent a few summers as a teenager working at Glacier National Park, would probably enjoy the sentiment (if not the cedarwood, mountain ash and fir fragrance) of Parks Project’s Glacier National Park candle. (There are also candles that pay homage to Zion and Joshua Tree national parks.)

A round black candle with a white label that reads "Hands Off My Vagina."
The fragrance of the Goop X Heretic Hands Off My Vagina candle is a blend of coconut milk, Damascena roses “balanced with raw vanilla, clean notes of hinoki cypress and hints of toasted cacao”; $25 from the sale of each $75 candle is being donated to the ACLU Foundation’s Reproductive Freedom Project.
(Goop)

There’s a bushel of burnable options for the herbal enthusiast on your nice list including a Cannabis candle from Malin+Goetz and a Hashish one from Jonathan Adler. Not to be outdone, L.A.-based chandler Boy Smells has a deep bench of Kush candles including Cashmere Kush, Italian Kush and Cowboy Kush.

Looking to send a message? You’re in luck, thanks to cheeky candles emblazoned with just the right words from “Not my circus not my monkeys” to “Don’t do meth in our bathroom.”

For those whose focus skews decidedly below the belt, the ongoing Goop X Heretic Parfum collaboration has no shortage of blush-inducing choices including This Smells Like My Vagina (geranium, citrus, bergamot and cedar are in the mix in case you’re curious), This Smells Like My Orgasm (grapefruit, black tea and rose) and, most recently, Hands Off My Vagina (“Coconut milk and Damascena roses are balanced with raw vanilla, clean notes of hinoki cypress, and hints of toasted cacao,” reads the scent description, which goes on to note that $25 from the sale of each $75 candle will be donated to the ACLU Foundation’s Reproductive Freedom Project).

A candle in a glass jar next to a green and white patterned box. The label on both reads "White Elephant."
Homesick’s White Elephant candle has top notes of candied orange, cardamom and yuzu fizz, middle notes of Champagne, clove and gingerbread cookie and base notes of sparkling cassis, balsam fir and teakwood.
(Homesick)

Long story short, I’m big enough to admit I’ve finally seen the light on the whole candles-as-holiday-gifts thing. So, when next year’s office white elephant gift exchange rolls around, I know exactly what I’m going to do.

Instead of turning to the closet stash, I’m going to put in the effort and select one specifically for the occasion. With top notes of candied orange, cardamom and yuzu fizz, a White Elephant candle will carry the day.

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