Take some of the existential dread out of winterâ€...

Take some of the existential dread out of winter’s darkness with ‘candle time’

Candles create a sense of time in the sun’s absence -- an alternative way to measure the day’s progress.

winter candle time lit candles on shelf with chair in home

It begins not long after daylight saving time ends each November: that unmistakable, visceral sense of dread in the pit of my stomach that grows as the nocturnal hour creeps ever closer to the dinner hour.

Admittedly, we’re lucky here in Detroit, located as we are at the far western edge of the Eastern time zone, meaning nearly an extra hour before sundown compared to people further east — and not too far north. We have only a few weeks of darkness starting at 5 p.m. to contend with before late January when the sun begins to linger above the horizon until nearly 6 p.m. Take heart, every day we’re gaining whole minutes of precious daylight. 

But for some of us, those short days combined with wintry gray skies can be downright paralyzing. 

One simple way to combat the darkness: Light a candle, and allow the warm, yellow light of a flame to make things feel a little more special, transforming cold darkness into warmth and coziness. 

In her 2018 New York Time essay “Candle Hour” (also turned into a gorgeous episode on the podcast “Nocturne”), writer Julia Scott makes a compelling recommendation:

At night, by candlelight, the world feels enduring, ancient and slow. To sit and stare at a candle is to drop through a portal to a time when firelight was the alpha and omega of our days. We are evolved for the task of living by candlelight and maladapted to living the way we live now.

Scott came to candle hour by accident, during an ice storm in Montreal that forced her family to live without electricity for a week. She makes candle time a ritual, a daily (albeit loose) practice involving journaling and scents and the stowing of all electronic devices.

I love the idea, but these days I find myself unable to dedicate an hour to anything on purpose. Instead, I welcome the dark hours of winter as space and license to light candles on the regular, to bask in their glow no matter what I am doing. I light them in the morning while drinking coffee, put them on my desk during the day while working, keep them burning in the evening when I’m cooking and light a few more after sundown while reading or relaxing (or working extra hours in the evening to catch up, as we remote workers tend to do). I choose mild fragrances or unscented candles that burn long.

Warm yellow light casts snug shadows across my walls and floors, fading in the morning and slowly returning in the evening. Candles create a sense of time — an alternative way to measure the day’s progress. In the sun’s absence, time can be measured by the quality of the candlelight.

It’s a lot of candles, so lately I have begun making them, using upcycled glassware, beeswax bought in bulk, and coconut oil. It’s so easy and so satisfying — I’m not sure why I never thought to do it before. 

In more contemplative moments, I can see winter’s short days as a gift as precious as July sun: a space to illuminate. Soon, the sun will return, and with it the bright early mornings and slow-fading twilights. My candles will go into storage. But when that sense of dread appears once again, I’ll return to my tiny bulwarks against the darkness.

Detroit candles:

Tips for making your own candles:

Read more of Detour’s Detroit winter survival tips, or submit your own here.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak