Every four minutes, inside a rambling store in Deerfield, Massachusetts, it snows. It’s part of the Yankee Candle Village, a sprawling retail destination made of cobbled-together rustic-looking buildings. It’s a place, as a large sign outside the village informs, where “it’s always Christmas.”
The north star around which Yankee Candle Village Christmas spins is their “Bavarian Village,” an amalgam that contains both a faux European town square under a simulated night sky and a “Nutcracker Castle” filled with vaguely Renaissance Fair-type merchandise. Everywhere there are alcoves full of thematically organized Christmas decorations.
The snow happens in a small darkened room that is essentially the foyer to this attraction, filled with fake Christmas trees, decorated in ornaments that you are encouraged to pluck and purchase. I stood there for several minutes, puzzled, wondering whether I was supposed to interpret the LED lights as a form of snow. Suddenly, I heard a loud sound like a vacuum cleaner, or maybe one of those restroom hand dryers. Then mechanically generated flakes began shooting out of a machine tucked behind a rampart with a sign declaring “Snowflake Factory,” before drifting to the ground, dissipating as they fell.
I drove the two and a half hours to spend the afternoon there, alone, in large part because I’m obsessed with the surreal seasonality of the Hallmark Christmas movie fictional universe, and this seemed as close as I could to experiencing it in real life. As our political situation grows darker and darker, the months of November and December are just growing sparklier and sparklier, with a frenzy that exceeds even simple market-driven Christmas creep. And, too, as the mother of a young child, I’ve been drawn into the balsam-scented arms of the holiday season, going damn near hog wild with true enthusiasm for decorative tea towels and silk greenery wreaths.
Also, this is precisely the sort of off-kilter tourist trap that absolutely thrills me to my core.
But like all nearly all recreations of a perfect Christmas—Hallmark movies included—Yankee Candle Village had the vaguely incoherent aura of the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. No matter how long I wandered, I just couldn’t quite reconcile how all the rooms and hallways fit together and where the doors to the exterior porches would leave me. I would exit the long hallway featuring every possible configuration of Christmas village—Victorian, National Lampoon, Harry Potter, Addams Family, Margaritaville—and expect to see the central atrium featuring the Au Bon Pain, but instead stumble into the housewares, which veered from wine mom to grandmotherly to whoever is buying dish towels that say “my safe word is takeout.” I felt like I was trapped and I very nearly purchased a novelty spatula.
The core of the experience is, of course, candles. The rooms dedicated to selling candles (as opposed to ornaments, nutcrackers, sundry German Christmas snacks, garden accents, toys, or Christmas villages) were heavily touting their Christmas offerings. I smelled several: “Sugar Frost Christmas” candles which were vaguely reminiscent of one of the companions of a Strawberry Shortcake doll. “Holiday Shimmer” was rather powdery. Bayberry—scented, not actually made with bayberries, more on that later—was a little too bathroom air freshener for my tastes. Their Hanukkah offering—“Festival of Lights,” blue—actually smelled quite nice, like Red Hots. “Christmas Cookie” smelled like pure vanilla extract.
Strangely, the “Make Your Own Candle” area was pretty much deserted all day; admittedly, it was a Wednesday.
In recent years, the company has replaced its signature Chandler’s Restaurant with an Au Bon Pain. So after catching a demonstration of historic candlemaking methods in the candlemaking museum—did you know that early New Englanders made candles out of bayberries, an unbelievably labor-intensive process that makes collecting beeswax sound easy?—I hopped back in my car and drove 20 minutes up the road to a competitor attraction: Kringle Candle Company.
There is low-key candle drama afoot in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts. Kringle Candle Company was founded by the son of the man who founded Yankee Candle Company, which was eventually sold to a private equity company. But apparently the Kitteridges just couldn’t get enough of the candle business, so in 2009 they founded the new company, which now sells two basic lines of candles: Kringle Candles, which are white and actually tell you what goes into a scent on the cap, and Country Candles, which look like the store brand version of a Yankee Candle—but actually smell better.
Kringle Candle has a slightly more upscale feel, giving off distinct L.L. Bean vibes with its giant Adirondack chair parked in front of its flagship store for photo ops. Yankee Candle is more Bass Pro. Another helpful comparison: Kringle Candle is the Chip and Joanna Gaines Target line to Yankee Candle’s Pioneer Woman by Walmart products. Their farm-to-table restaurant was clearly designed to evoke a cozy colonial inn and was tastefully festooned with greenery. Jazzy Christmas covers played unobtrusively; I was seated in a leather wingback chair next to a roaring fire. The whole place was decorated with images of the area depicting its pre-modern, bucolic farming past.
The Kringle Candle Store was divided along thematic lines: woodsy (lumberjack, plaid, canoe wall art); ocean (glitter starfish ornaments, mermaids); winter woods (everything white, metallic mushrooms, corrugated metal Christmas trees); and sort of basic boho, clearly designed for an imaginary millennial: sequin deer pillows, brightly colored ornaments, glitter deer, feather trees. I found myself thinking that I could simply spray paint a pinecone rather than pay $5.95, but I did purchase a “Country Candle” in the flavor of “Merry Christmas,” which also smelled like Red Hots—the cashier informed me that this was the cinnamon, but Red Hots is a more accurate description. By this point, I was growing extremely concerned that I was on the verge of a slight asthma event from a full day of huffing candles.
The dominant theme, though, was nostalgia. Mass-market, secular Christmas is closely entwined with nostalgia. You see this in places like the Yankee Candle Village, all those Hallmark movies, every store that caters to home decor—places like Target and Michaels have entire “vintage” collections, which specialize in a sort of a 1950s pastiche. Yankee Candle’s whole schtick is right there in the name—it’s explicitly a callback to colonial New England—and so it makes sense that the brand would be deeply invested in the holiday.
But there’s a funny irony to the close association. The woman doing the demo of old-fashioned candlemaking methods explained that when candles were a practical necessity of life, farmers of the sort who lived in the area wouldn’t have even had the luxury of beeswax candles, or the more labor intensive bayberry candles. Instead, they would have used tallow, made from the rendered fat of slaughtered animals, producing a candle that smoked and sputtered and burned quickly. The paraffin of which modern Yankee candles are made is an invention of the industrial age. It’s nostalgia for a past that never existed in the first place, built on anachronism.
This is a recurring theme with Christmas nostalgia: it refers to a past that never was. The Puritans who founded Massachusetts—the original Yankees—didn’t even celebrate Christmas, which was a decadent holiday for adults they associated with Catholics. It was really the Victorians who invented modern, mass-market, consumerist Christmas, creating a rosy family haven of “tradition” in an era that was increasingly about the industrial market. “Let It Snow” was written in Los Angeles during a heat wave. An increasingly common trope of Christmas decorations is the workaday trucks of the late 1940s—precisely when America was giving itself over to a fad for aluminum trees and everything space age.
While the crowds at Yankee Candle was not exclusively white, it was pretty close to Hallmark movie territory, and both stores were heavily invested in traditional gender roles. Yankee Candle, for instance, had a “Man Cave,” between the candlemaking museum and the pet section, with a TV blaring sports. (At least twice I walked through and Barbra Streisand was singing Christmas music, though.) And in a display dedicated to manly stuff, such as Cessna-branded accessories, Kringle Candle was selling a line of grooming merch by something called the “Duke Cannon Supply Company,” with a sign that explained, in all caps:
IN DUKE’S TIME, MEN PURSUED MEANINGFUL ENDEAVORS. THEY WORKED WITH THEIR HANDS. THEY TOOK PRIDE IN THE THINGS THEY BUILT, NOT THE THINGS THEY BOUGHT. AND THE MINDSET WAS SIMPLE: MEN WANTED TO WIN, NOT FIND THE “WIN-WIN.”
AND THEN THE WHOLE METROSEXUAL TREND CAME ALONG AND SCREWED MEN UP EVEN WORSE.
NOW EXISTS A GENERATION OF MEN WHO HAVE SPENT MORE TIME IN A POTTERY BARN THAN A HARDWARE STORE. HELL NO.
NEEDLESS TO SAY, THE DUKE CANNON SUPPLY COMPANY IS NOT A BIG FAN OF THIS TREND. IT’S TIME FOR MAN TO DEVOLVE, NOT EVOLVE.
Again, this was a candle store.
It’s a recurring theme of our ongoing era, which is obsessed with “vintage” and “flea market,” to the point of mass-market merchandising of the concepts which of course is the precise opposite of the thing it purports to be.
And it worked on me! I consumed. I spent $50 on candles.