This story is part of our guide to five gift-giving philosophies to help you find the perfect gift.
I’ll always remember my gateway candle. It was a small, soy wax charmer scented with fig and maple, fitted with a screw-on lid. I picked it up for $12 at a craft fair in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shortly after the holidays. I’d just moved into my first studio apartment in New York City—a space on the second floor of a brownstone, with a cracked-tile fireplace and an alcove for my bed. I’d loved plenty of places I’d lived before, but I’d never really had the chance to make an apartment feel like it was mine.
I wasn’t sure what my interior-design aesthetic was exactly, so I made it up as I went along. I hung pictures on the walls, optimistically purchased a delicate, feathery fern, and unpacked my grandmother’s dishes. When I brought my new candle home and lit it, something clicked. I had a small, sturdy flame and snow falling outside my window; the candle made my apartment smell like a warm stack of pancakes. What was this feeling coming over me?
It was the feeling of becoming a candle person.
I never expected to care about candles. In my teens and twenties, sometimes a person I didn’t know that well would give me a candle they’d picked up at T.J. Maxx or Yankee Candle Company, which felt vaguely insulting. No one I knew, except people in romantic movie bathtub scenes, actually used candles. And yet they were ubiquitous; perhaps it’s because we all find ourselves stumped for gifts sometimes. Saturday Night Live’s “Christmas Candle” song describes the journey of an endlessly re-gifted $9 peach candle, “We’re joined by the candle / It’s the gift of having a gift to give away.”
It’s true that the wrong candle—with a saccharine, Jolly Rancher scent—invites an endless cycle of re-gifting. But the right candle? The right candle is a perfect luxury: an utterly unnecessary object that has the power to make life, and by extension you, feel a bit more elegant, cozy, or calm in the manner of the Norwegian fjordic landscape. And there’s more: When you give someone a candle, you’re passing along the gift of ritual. Striking a match and lighting a tiny, pleasant fire in your home means committing to the idea that everyday life can be an occasion worth celebrating.
Before I became a candle person, I used to envy birders. Every time they step outside, they’re attuned to the possibility they might see a ruby-throated hummingbird, an elf owl, or something else that’s 100% dope. That’s what it’s like being into candles, with its associated literature and thrill of the hunt. Every time I step into a gift shop, home store, or craft fair, I am giddy with anticipation. I can’t wait to find out what candles will be there, and what they will smell like. It’s a hopeful thing, appreciating candles and imagining how you might feel after you light them, the kind of person you could become.
Perhaps this is why the business for luxury burnables is booming with candles from brands like Diptyque, Jo Malone London, 12.29, Byredo, and L’Objet. They promise to transport you not only to a more relaxed state of mind, but also to an infinitely more interesting and sophisticated plane of existence. (Just read the copy for L’Objet’s $95 Thé Russe candle: “It was cold in Paris that October day in 1975 when Philippe received a hand-written note from Mischa Barinov of St. Petersburg; an invitation to view a rare, privately held collection of antiquities …”)
Descriptions like these are not just entertaining, but also instructive for choosing a mood your recipient might want to evoke. Thé Russe, apparently, recalls leather-bound books, a crackling fire, and “the steam of black tea rising from a spectacular samovar”—perfect for the romantic in your family. Byredo’s foreboding-sounding Apocalpytic candle, at $80, ”opens with an accord of white-hot iron and black raspberry,” then loads up on smoking birch and “the ancient scent of papyrus” to summon up a “landscape of ashes and despair,” which sounds like it would work well both for proud cynics and teenage fans of dystopian young adult fiction.
But a great candle need not leave you broke. Brands like Diptyque have $35 “travel” candles, thank goodness. And candle-loving celebrities have plenty of recommendations in a more modest price range. In August, New York Magazine rounded up quotes from 26 famous people, including Oprah, Beyoncé, Alexander Wang, and RuPaul, waxing poetic about their favorite brands. Oprah likes an “Appalachia”-scented candle that makes her feel like she’s in the middle of a forest. RuPaul likes the $30 “RuPaul Essential Candle” which smells like orange and ginger—and is, according to the candle’s website, also what RuPaul smells like. (Lucky!)
The right candle also presents a chance to temporarily redecorate your home. Instead of moving the couch around or buying a new pair of curtains, you can just keep a couple candles on rotation. I currently have five, which I associate with different seasons, occasions, and times of day. The fig and maple one–still a favorite–is kind of a winter weekend affair. I recently picked up a chamomile and sage variety in the Berkshires, which I tend to light before bed. One friend gave me a driftwood and indigo candle, which is good for when you’re trying to impress guests with your devotion to musk. And another sent me one scented with lavender and white sage, perfect for mornings and warmer months. And I just bought a travel candle two-pack (one for me, one for a friend) from Barr Co, which smell like oatmeal and milk and vetiver, and make you want to devour them.
The key to good candle-giving is really the same as with any gift: Get outside of your own head to consider what another person might find charming, relaxing, or useful. If you choose well, you might even nudge the recipient on the path to becoming a candle person, a joy in its own right.
Update (Nov. 27): An earlier version of this story stated that Oprah’s favorite Appalachia candle cost only $24. It has since come to our attention that the price has doubled, to $48.