In a back aisle of my neighborhood supermarket is a small altar to both the sacred and the profane, in the form of rows and rows of candles. Most of the candles are of the devotional variety: nine-inch-tall glass jars with colorfully detailed, benevolently smiling saints on the front and prayers on the back. Others, tucked inconspicuously along the bottom row, dispense with the saints and the prayers. Boldly inscribed in both English and Spanish, these candles promise to address pressing problems that a person might be reluctant to bring up with a saint, such as the Ven a Mi (“Come to Me”) candle for unrequited love. During the peak candle season—from Halloween through Easter—the surge in sales is so great that San Antonio’s Reed Candle Company, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of religious candles, must hustle to keep a supply rolling to H.E.B., Kroger, and Handy Andy, its biggest clients.
For fifty years Reed Candle has occupied the same nondescript building on San Antonio’s West Side. It’s easy to find: The faint strawberry fragrance used to perfume the wax scents the air a good half-block away. Peter N. Reed, 69, and his son David, 42, manage the operation. Peter’s father, Peter D., ran a grocery store on the West Side, supplying the neighborhood with flour, produce, and devotional candles, which were shipped from St. Louis. Then, in 1937, he bought a batch of jelly jars from Winn’s, filled them with wax, and started making his own candles. David credits his grandfather with personalizing the candles. “Until the thirties, candles were burned in plain jars in front of a painting or statue on the wall, but my grandfather silk-screened color onto the jars and added images and prayers,” he says. In the past ten years, though, connoisseurs of the devotional candle as an art form have lamented the replacement of the silk-screened images with mass-produced paper labels.
The biggest sellers have always been the resplendent Virgin of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose eyes gaze compassionately at the observer in a pose reminiscent of Italian Renaissance masterpieces. Saint Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes, is always sought after, as is Saint Martin Caballero, who is said to bring good fortune to businesses. When the Madonna vision appeared in Lubbock in 1988, sales of the Queen of Peace candles skyrocketed.
Burning a candle is a sign of devotion, and many Hispanic households keep one lit all the time. For some people, though, expedience takes precedence over intercession, which explains the popularity of other candles, such as Lucky Bingo or Double Fast Luck, which ask for specific results. Craig Pennel of San Antonio’s Tienda Guadalupe, a trendy folk-art shop on South Alamo, notes a strong demand for Get a Job candles. Other favorites—even though the Reeds plan to phase them out—include Law! Stay Away, featuring a white-outlined policeman writing a ticket, and Court Case, when Law! Stay Away doesn’t work. At Papa Jim’s Botanica, a supermarket of the weird on South Flores that stocks everything from stop-gossip floor washes and stay-away-love potions to costly religious statuettes, some customers are partial to La Anima Errante, which lures back that straying lover, and Papa Jim’s own football-pool candle, which advises, “If you are not winning the football pots then you need to light a jinx-removing candle and take a bath with Papa Jim herbal bath #7.” Play it safe, though, and get the utilitarian 21 Root, suggests Papa Jim: “This candle is good for whatever you want it for.”