How to light the really tall candles

The other day we were talking about candles and their composition.

You know the old phrase… don not try this at home?

From a priest reader:

Fr Z. now that altars are becoming higher and higher, so to speak, some practical difficulties ensue.
I heard this practical tip on how to light really high candles from an old priest … . It makes me think that this is not something you should try at home, lest you burn your house down!
Take a little chunk of wax, melt it in a pot. An electric stove is safer for this… Then put a tiny amount of petrol (gasoline) [this is where things get interesting] into the pot away from the stove. [Good tip.] Mix it well. Let it dry. Put tiny globs of this on the wicks of the impossibly high candles to be lit long before Mass. When it comes time to light them just before Mass, one merely has to touch the flame to the wick and it begins to burn nicely immediately.

Otherwise….what happens?


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Fr Paul F says:

    The easiest solution I have found is just to light the candle before it is put in place to scorch the wick ahead of time.

    Then when one is reaching up with the long handled taper later before the liturgy it tends to light right up.

    (Although not necessarily the best in symbolic value…and perhaps too late for this year…even if one does not have high candles this little bit of preparation is a good way to ensure an easy light during the liturgy for the Easter Candle and other altar candles for the Vigil)

  2. Jane Teresa says:

    Sorry to throw the netiquette out of the window by posting a link, but perhaps you might be able to lend a hand to Br. Ursus OP of the Dominicans at Blackfriars in Oxford, who appears to be struggling with this very problem.

  3. tecumseh says:

    When I was “in Charterhouse”, the old brother I worked with always used to keep a bit of wax handy, when the candles were extinguished after mass, he would touch the red hot end of the wick with the wax, this stopped the candle from smoking, and I guess helped them to light easier as well.
    The historian Paul Johnson, tells of his time at Stonyhurst in the 1930’s, apparently they used to link all the candle wicks together with gun cotton, at the start of 40 Hours Adoration, so they would all light together, imagine what the health and safety zealots would make of that nowadays.

  4. Thomas says:

    I may have to try that sometime, but as it stands, the rule for our altar is to climb the high altar from behind (there is a ledge behind the reredos. It makes me wonder why we use the long lighter.

  5. Rachel says:

    Once when the burnt-down candles on either side of our altar had just been replaced with tall new ones, a determined but much-too-short altar boy tried to blow them out… and tried and tried… at last a woman in the congregation went up and blew them out for him.

    Reminds me of the man who trained his little dog to fetch the paper– it worked fine until Sunday.

  6. Paul S says:

    Yes, hasn’t this priest given us the recipe for napalm?

    [I love the smell of beeswax in the morning.]

  7. Bill in Texas says:

    Oh, please, I beseech you! Do NOT try that gasoline trick. With all respect to the ancient priest, it is dangerous and not worth the risk. And the gasoline will also stink up the house and probably the sanctuary. Not to mention how hard it is to get the odor of burnt flesh out of the house.

    The best suggestion is the one about lighting each candle and allowing it to burn briefly — to get some carbon on the wick — then put it out, before placing it in the candlestick. Then use the long taper to light it. Centuries of altar servers managed to get those tall candles lit without resorting to benzine priming.

  8. Michael says:

    Why not use a ladder?

  9. Sieber says:

    Reminds me my altar boy daze. The pastor of our newly redecorated church liked gizmos. In place of the long wooden handle with taper on one side & “snuffer” on the other, he bought one with taper on one side & a small fan on the other. This was controlled by a flashlight like device with D batteries. Well lighting the tall candles for high Mass was no problem, but when I turned on the fan to extinguish them we had pure bees wax blowing in all directions. Hadn’t had so much fun since John lit his surplice on fire at “Lumen Christi.”

  10. Vincenzo had a picture of a priest using a flamethrower.

    Just an idea.

  11. Larry says:

    A visit to the various candle maker web sites reveals anumber of ways to care for candles. There are indeed candle snuffers that dip the burning candle wick in wax to extinguish it and prevent smoldering wicks. This also makes lighting the candle easier because the small amount of wax ignites more quickly than a “dry” wick. Of course the problem of tall or high candles is in no way solved by this.

    Fr. Z’s rection on the results of gasoline and canlde wax do suggest a sort of apocolyptic dimension and brings new meaning to the phrase “light of the world”! Holy smoke indeed!

  12. Carolina Geo says:

    My only addition to this discussion is my observation that it is generally the shortest altar boy who has the task of lighting the tallest candles! I know I shouldn’t be paying attention, but it’s a constant source of sympathied amusement for me before Mass to watch that poor kid try to light those candles. Inevitably one of the other servers wonders what might have happened to his diminutive colleague and wanders out of the sacristy on a search/rescue mission. It gets even better when there is something wrong with the candle, and the two of them together can’t even light it. I cannot imagine that I’m the only one before Mass who enjoys such a show!

  13. “Why not use a ladder?”

    Not flammable enough.

  14. Hugh says:

    From “The Sacristan’s Handbook” Bernard Page SJ (1932)

    “All candle wicks should be looked to before all services, especially if the candles have to be lighted in numbers before the people, as, for instance, between the sermon and Benediction. It is very distracting to see an altar-boy struggling with a refractory candle wick that refuses to take light. For such occasions it is very helpful to paint some drops of paraffin or petrol on each wick before service.

    Candles will not light if they have been rapidly extinguished and allowed to smoulder. The extinguisher should be put over the flame and lowered slowly.”

  15. John Polhamus says:

    I also don’t think I’d be apt to try this suggestion on anything but a marble sanctuary: glob of burning, dried gasoline paste on a carpet…methinks even the tongues of flame at Pentecost burned not so hot!!

  16. Penitent says:

    For tall or height located candles we use a simple trick in Seville. We have a long cane (some 2-3m. long, – 6 to 9 feet for americans) with a cotton cord (or a very slim candle) tied in one of the ends. The cord is lighted, burning without flame. Just apply -with some practice- to the candle cords, and voilà. If you can get cord for old fashioned flintstone lighters the better
    Not as exciting as Nathan’s recepit, but extremely practical
    To put them out without smoke, get a similar device but with a small bell shaped metalic piece.

  17. Biff says:

    Don’t use gasoline!

    Kerosene isn’t explosive and it won’t evaporate before its needed.

    Hope that helps

  18. Ha ha ha. funny Father. Love the picture. You are a nut. [uh, I say that with the utmost respect!]

  19. chironomo says:

    At a former parish we had a beautiful 5\’6\” Markland Paschal candle that sat atop a nearly 5\’ high stand. The net effect was a 11\’ high candle with a rather sizable chaser cuff on top.

    Even an unusually tall altar boy with an extraordinarily long lighter had problems just seeing the top of the candle let alone where the wick was. The candle was always lit well before Mass, as it required a 6\’ step ladder to get high enough to light it.

    It would seem to me that puring petrol into hot wax is not great advice to give to others online…

  20. J. Basil Damukaitis says:

    Having lit the High Mass candlesticks as a 5th grader I’ve never had to go through such steps!!! Father simply taught us to extend the taper, bend it get a huge flame going and then hold it there!

    Ahhhh those were the days!!!!! Now the only danger left in the liturgy is being choked by flying ribbons.

  21. Father Totton says:

    J basil’s solution is the one I use, but one has to be careful lest wax from the taper drip onto the mensa of the altar – this is why the altar boys at my parish light candles BEFORE removing the altar cover. If wax drips, it is caught by the (utilitarian) altar cover and the altar cloths remain clean for weeks (sometimes months).

  22. Gaz says:

    Br Ursus looks pretty light. You could put HIM on the end of the stick. I’m sure he’d be able to see the wick from there.

  23. Malcolm says:

    The is the best post ever. Only manly priests think of this.

  24. J. Brooks says:

    On Palm Sunday this year we had switched to six huge Marklin candles on our high altar and a smaller seventh candle in the middle beneath the Crucifix. (and low altar, although shorter) They were more than a foot taller than the older Cathedral Brand ones we used to use, and therefore, a bit beyond the range of the 9 foot candle lighter, so for that weekend we stood on a stool to light them. but with all the Palm Sunday Masses and the Chrism Mass, they had formed deep sockets by Holy Thursday Evening and we had to lean a huge noisy ladder against the back of the high altar, draw back the decorative curtains and light them from the side. But then came the Vigil, when they have to be lit with some degree of efficiency and quiet during the Gloria. We drilled in holes next to the wicks and inserted longer sections of wick which extended an inch or two above the followers with preburnt ends so they would catch more quickly. It worked! Thanks be to God! Since then, though it’s been the ladder, but honestly, the huge Marklin Candles are gorgeous (bigger than most Parish Easter Candles) and I’m more than happy to do the work for the spectacular effect they have. If I followed Marklin’s advice and burned them for the whole morning, they probably wouldn’t form sockets and this wouldn’t be necessary.

  25. Nick says:

    The photograph of the Papal mass reminds me that in the good old days the crucifix and tall candlesticks were placed down the middle length of the altar and not along the opposite side from the celebrant. Also, I am unaware that the laity (or the majority of the clergy for that matter) communicated at these rare Papal solemn masses.

  26. tecumseh says:

    My cousin tells very funny stories of his time as an altar boy dealing with these dilemmas, his mother calling out from the Nave “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” as he swayed on a ladder trying to light an impossibly high candle. And of the time when an over enthusiastic thurifer was swung with such vigour that the red hot charcoal flew out and landed on the new carpet, only to be picked up with bare hands and carried at speed by said altar boy juggling the hot coal like a circus clown, under the horrified gaze of the Parish priest. I got up to some merry pranks and japes as well, but not to be recounted here.

  27. James says:

    This Easter – Lighting the tall candles on the altar:

    and further photos with them lit:

  28. chironomo says:

    J. Brooks…

    Yes, Marklin is well known for the “really big candles”! And the craftsmanship is superior as well. I toured their factory a number of years back and was just amazed that these candles are all essentially “handmade” one at a time by real artists. Perhaps they should work on inventing a reliable “lighter” for these larger candles!

  29. J. Basil Damukaitis says:

    Fr. Z
    How about other altar boy stories of horror and hilarity?????????????????????? I’ve got quite a few.
    Anyone else?


  30. J. Basil Damukaitis says:

    Fr. Z
    How about other altar boy stories of horror and hilarity?
    I\’ve got lots!
    Anyone else??


  31. Is there something safely flammable (i.e., gasoline is not “safely flammable” in my opinion) that could be sprayed on the wicks? Does WD40 burn? How about hair spray?

  32. Maureen says:

    We need some chemists to chime in. Chemists love fire. They know all about the stuff you shouldn’t do, from experience.

  33. Martin_B says:

    Not much experience on this topic from my side.

    But I would like to see the Easter-Candle being put on its (3 to 4m) stand in St.-Paul-outside-the-walls.

    I always imagine the deacon trying to climb a ladder without using this hands (both being occupied holding the candle).

    Has anyone seen this while being in rome for easter?

  34. Larry says:


    I wondered what all the racket with that ladder was all about! The “sockets” or cratering can be corrected; but it is a bit time consuming. Give me a call maybe I can help.

    Has anyone else ever considered the notion of burning candles as a carry over of a “fire offering” or holcaust?

  35. leo says:

    be a roman replace the wick with an electric bulb and a ribbon flex down the side two tapers to fulfill the rubric

  36. WCR in Pittsburgh says:

    A simple and elegant device for lighting Really Tall Candles, as I recall from the olden days, is along the lines of that flame-thrower; that is, a long-handled, butane-fueled lighter.

    My parish in Detroit had them; they were 6-8 feet long, and were powered by little cylinders of compressed butane that look just like the CO2 cartridges used in air pistols. You’d unscrew the cylinder slightly, which started the flow of gas, and light the flowing butane with a match. The flame projected downward, thus alleviating the classic problem of smashing or breaking off the candle’s wick, since there was no physical contact needed.

    Altar boys being boys, we especially enjoyed the fact that unscrewing the cylinder a bit more than regulation would produce an eight-inch flame. Didn’t want to do that when Monsignor was around, though.

    I could find only one manufacturer on the web who offers such a device. You can see it at:

    The ones of my youth were not so techno-industrial looking as these German numbers; rather, they were simple chrome pipe, with the butane cylinder barely visible. They did feature the ill-conceived “ring of wind” extinguishing device, rather than a bell-snuffer. You squeezed a red bubber ball in the handle, which blew air through a number of holes in a chrome ring towards its center. The idea was to lower the ring to wick level and blow out the flame. And indeed the flame went out, but molten wax often cascaded from the heavens at the same time.

  37. Dino says:

    No problem in my former parish. Just flick the switch.

  38. carl says:

    J. Brooks,

    The new candles are lovely. I understand they’re a bit more expensive than what the cathedral was using before, but they really were noticeable at the Vigil. Worth it, in my estimation.

  39. Is there a special blessing in some out of print book for “holy napalm?”

  40. irishgirl says:

    I’m going to try this again….

    Oh, man….Fr. Z and Vincenzo, you really know how to make a girl smile on Monday! I nearly LOL in the library!

    Yeah, Martin-I’m curious to know how the St. Paul’s Paschal candle is lit. I’ve seen that candlestick when I’ve been in Rome; the only way to put the candle in that is to use a stepladder!

  41. Sacristymaiden says:

    Basil, I second the motion on alter boy stories.
    I know a lot too, and I’m not even a boy!
    Ahh, the priviledges of being sister and friend to several MCs.

    Incidentally, that tale of the over-enthusiastic thurifer sounds pretty close to one or two incidents I’ve heard of.

  42. MAJ Tony says:

    Fr. Marie-Paul: the blessing for “Holy Napalm” is most likely in Greek, as it is akin to Greek Fire. At least that would be my guess.

    We always lit all the candles on the high altar (three each side) and side altars for Christmas and Easter, and as long as I was serving (1980s), I generally got to battle that dragon. Dad taught me early on to NEVER pull the taper back in the snuffer to put it out, or it would melt the wax. Apparently, that was a common occurrence, as I had to clean out previous altar boys’ messes from said mistreatment. We had one of the old squeeze ball snuffers stuffed into the boy’s sacristy closet, but it was so old that it’s rubber was dry-rotten.

    Another neat trick I learned from a now-deceased older cousin of my grandparents’ generation was a surefire trick to get the thurible coals good and hot. He would take the thurible outside and twirl it really fast to get a good supply of oxygen to the coal after starting it with charcoal lighter fluid on the tongs.

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