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The Red Hand-Dipped Candles

a short story by Debra Ann West


Flashback to 1987

   Max was so tired but still so excited about the school field trip that he had taken that day, he could hardly get to sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. How in the world did kids back then ever survive? The lady at the log cabin had said that twelve children lived in that one-room house. And that one of the kids’ jobs was dumping the bedpan every morning. Whoever heard of a bedpan? Gross!!

   He climbed out of his bed and turned on the light imagining what it would be like to have no electricity to even charge a cell phone or watch TV. He reached under his bed and found the wooden box that his great-grandfather had made, carved from real wood. He remembered the guy in the woodshop showing the class how to use those old tools. He’d even had the chance to use the drill and the drawknife.

   He opened the box of treasures and among his favorite matchbox cars, GI Joe figurine, and the $3.97 he had saved up for a new Atari game, was his purchase from that day's visit to the Pioneer Settlement. He just knew his mom was going to love the pair of red hand-dipped candles that he planned to give to her for Christmas. He and his classmates had helped to dip a similar pair but those had to stay behind on the drying rack until they were dipped enough times to fit into a candle holder. When he asked the teacher how many times a candle needed to be dipped to become big enough to buy she said it took about thirty children just like him for each candle.

   He picked up the handmade nail that he also bought in the little Country Store. He felt the rough edges and the point with his fingertips. It was one that a real Blacksmith had made and he dreamed of becoming a superhero who could bend iron into cool tools by heating them in a fire and pounding them with a hammer.

   When the door creaked open he quickly closed the box and slid it back into its hiding place. Whew he thought, that was close as his mother crossed the room to say goodnight to her little man. Momma always called him little man but he was glad it was only in private and never around his friends. Even though Max felt like he was getting a little too old to be tucked in he still secretly enjoyed the scent of her perfume and the sweetness in her voice before falling asleep.

   Yes, he could hardly wait for Christmas morning to give her that pair of red hand-dipped candles.

Fast forward to 2020

   Max was surprised that morning at his anticipation about chaperoning his daughter Natalie’s school field trip. He could barely eat breakfast as he wondered if things had changed much there over the last 30 years. Max had taken the day off and was really looking forward to seeing the place he remembered as a child and sharing it with his eight-year-old daughter.

   Upon arrival Max noticed that things did look much the way he remembered, the old schoolhouse was looking pretty good for its 100 years. As Max and Natalie’s class moved from station to station at the ringing of the school bell, Max’s appreciation for this preservation of history and for the people dedicated to passing on the pioneer arts and trades grew. The fascination and wonder he saw shining in his daughter Natalie’s eyes as she experienced the butter making, weaving and spinning was reminiscent of his own excitement of thirty years ago.

   As they entered the candle room the scent of the melted wax flooded his mind with memories. Little did he realize how significant that gift to his mom way back when would become. See up until three years ago every Christmas his Mom would unpack the pair of red hand-dipped candles and place them in small cut glass holders and put them on the mantle. She never did light them saying that they weren’t meant to burn that they were a gift that was meant for keeps. He wondered what had become of those red hand-dipped candles.

   The sound of the school bell ringing brought Max back to the present. The class made their way to lunch and then a visit to the Country Store. Max was hopeful that he and Natalie would find a pair of hand-dipped candles to carry home. Natalie looked on with anticipation as Max shared with the store clerk that he had made the same purchase at this store many years before and he wanted to pass down the tradition. The clerk could see the disappointment on their faces when she explained that they had just sold the very last pair of candles. “But just wait right here a moment”, the clerk exclaimed as she ran off. In a few minutes, she returned with a pair of candles that had just finished drying on the rack in the candle room. She handed the candles to Natalie telling her that these candles were extra special since they were ones that she had actually helped dip.  Max and Natalie boarded the busses for their return trip with smiling faces and grateful hearts.

The tradition was complete thanks to the quick thinking and thoughtfulness of the store clerk.

   Later that afternoon at home Max decided to put the candles in safekeeping for the next Christmas season.  As he searched through the garage he discovered a few boxes that had belonged to his mother. He had put off going through them since her passing three years ago, and was inclined to do the same now until something familiar caught his eye.

It was the wooden box from his great grandfather where he once stored up his childhood treasures. Max’s mom had carefully placed several items in the box and among them were the cut glass candle holders, the red hand-dipped candles and a handwritten note in his mother’s script that read:

They were not meant to burn

The gift was meant to keep

Like treasures stored in wooden boxes

As you sow you shall also reap


Now the red hand-dipped candles

Are yours to pass along

Like memoirs and traditions

Keepsakes are meant life long


No gift is ever greater

Than one from a young child’s heart

A mother’s love is forever

On earth or worlds apart


Now it’s you who must pass on

Traditions from hand to hand

Like the red hand-dipped candles

Given with love from my little man


   Max put everything along with Natalie’s pair of red hand-dipped candles back inside the hand-carved wooden box and with tears in his eyes and a smile on his face he gave it to Natalie to put under her bed.


The End


   The inspiration for creating this story came from hearing visitors say numerous times, “Oh, I came here on a field trip when I was a kid.”

   I hope this conveys the value of the role that the Barberville Pioneer Settlement plays in not only historical preservation but in the passing on of traditions. Our forty-four-year-old mission of preserving history and passing down traditions has in and of itself caused us to become that which we portray.      

   Your help is needed to continue the traditions.

   Please give generously. 


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