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Festive Candles

Introduction

This time of year, most candles are meant to cast a warm, golden glow over a holiday dinner or to fill an entryway with the inviting scents of pine and bayberry. But figural Christmas candles from the mid-20th century are a different matter. Collected and saved for decoration rather than illumination, they are rarely lit, and so remain intact to impart cheer to a home, season after season. The molded figures are generally lilliputian (2 to 5 inches tall), although some are as tall as 10 inches. They can be displayed on tables and mantels in imaginative groups guaranteed to captivate children and remind adults of Christmases past, when paint-by-number kits, roller skates with keys, and coonskin caps were found beneath the tree.

Figural candles were part of a plethora of clever, mass-produced novelties that beckoned from five-and-dime counters across America during the prosperous years after World War II. For less than a dollar, a homemaker could purchase a half dozen or more charming little wax candles -- ghosts for Halloween, turkeys and Pilgrims for Thanksgiving, bunnies for Easter -- to brighten her home during the holidays. "When people see them, they say things like 'Oh, I remember those! I used to have a snowman or a Santa,'" says Liz Tait, an antiques dealer in Austin, Texas, who owns about 200 of the candles. "People also like them because they are reasonably priced and make unique decorations."

If you happen to come across candles while rummaging through your grandmother's attic, chances are they will have become misshapen due to heat. (Always store candles of any kind in a cool, dark place.) Candles in good condition sometimes turn up at flea markets, church sales, thrift shops, and online auctions, selling for $5 to $20 apiece. If you're lucky you may discover a rare example, such as a mailbox inscribed "noel," that stands out among the more commonplace trees and Santas. And it's thrilling to find a set of mint-condition candles, with price tags still attached, in the original box.

Some of the most desirable figural candles come from the now-defunct Gurley Novelty Company of Buffalo, New York, which was owned by chemist Franklin C. Gurley Sr., whose assembly lines rolled out thousands of rotund red Santas and waving snowmen. One such sought-after label is Tavern Novelty Candles, a line of candles Franklin Gurley designed for the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company of Los Angeles, which used paraffin discarded from oil refining to make the figures. Other popular brands include Penn Wax Works and Emkay Candles.

Don't reject something you've fallen for just because it might be a little dirty. You can clean it by wrapping a piece of panty hose around your finger and gently buffing in a circular motion. Be careful not to press too hard or the color may come off the wax. (Practice by cleaning a small area on the back.) For hard-to-reach crevices, use a cotton swab dipped in soapy water.

Incorporating these old-fashioned whimsies into your holiday decorations does more than set a blithe tone for Christmas gatherings. The little wax figures spark warm reminiscences that link generations of family and friends.

Winter Wonderland
Figural holiday candles aren't stamped with dates, but their appearance can provide clues as to when they were created. Hand-painted, flat, shallow figures that look as if they were made in cookie molds, like the pipe-smoking snowman, probably date to the 1930s. Intricate multipiece designs -- such as the Santa in a chimney and figures with shapes that are more defined, like the deer and ice-skating snowman -- were produced in the late 1950s and early '60s. 

The most desirable figural candles have expressive faces, animated gestures, and adorable outfits. The waving Santa, snowmen with top hats, and hat-tipping snowman and mittened elves are uncommon collectibles. Christmas trees, sometimes bedecked with snow and glitter, and choir singers often came in boxed sets. A medley of multisize Santas and spiral trees, ranging from 1 1/2 inches to 10 inches, are arranged on a cake plate as a centerpiece.