WTF is Up with Yankee Candle’s ‘Festival of Lights’ Scent?

It’s a disgrace, a shanda. A candle scandal, if you will. It’s the epitome of everything wrong with lumping Hanukkah into the “winter holidays.” It’s Yankee Candle’s Festival of Lights®.

I just wanted to know what kind of scented Hanukkah candles were out there. To me, aromas associated with Hanukkah fall squarely into two categories: oil and wax. Oil from frying latkes, a scent which is not particularly pleasant, especially when it permeates your entire home for days after making them (which is weird because they taste so delicious!!!). And the smell of waxy candles, of a lit match, of the flames burning until they’re not.

The first thing that came up in my search was Homesick’s Hanukkah candle. According to their website, this one smells like, “Potato latkes, fresh out of the frying pan with applesauce. Boxes of warm jelly donuts from the corner market.” Honestly I don’t really know how a candle could smell both like latkes and donuts, but, as mentioned, the smell of frying oil doesn’t do all that much for me anyway, so I searched on.

Etsy turned up some options, but mostly of the purely decorative variety, like this one or this one, that say “Happy Hanukkah” on the label but can be purchased in any scent (from Jamaica Me Crazy to Pumpkin Soufflé). Burning these would be like finding a gold foil wrapper without the chocolate gelt inside. What’s the point?

So I made my way to the mothership, a place that anyone who grew up spending time in a suburban mall knows intimately, the candle company to end all candles companies: Yankee Candle (to be referred to as YC from here on out). YC boasts over 150 different scents of candles, all of which can be found in their signature mason jars. From their website, it looks like they have five different Christmas scents, including Cascading Snowberry™ and Zesty Orange Spice Garland. 

And then, I spotted it. The sole Hanukkah candle of the bunch. The Festival of Lights® (yes, this one is registered, not trademarked. Can somebody smarter than me please explain the difference? Is it because “Festival of Lights” is an actual popular phrase used to describe Hanukkah? Did a Maccabee descendent threaten to sue? Anyway, I digress). Made of deep blue wax with a fully-lit menorah surrounded by almost-but-not-quite Jewish stars on the label, this one looked promising. And then I read the description:

A blend of savory spices, rich cinnamon and sweet potpourri to celebrate the season.

What. The. Fuck. How in the world do savory spices and rich cinnamon and motherfucking potpourri have anything to do with Hanukkah? Maaaaybe you could stretch it and say that someone might put cinnamon apple sauce on their latkes, but without the smell of deep-fried potatoes to pair with it, this candle sounds nothing like my memories or experiences of Hanukkah.

But do you know what it does sound like? Christmas.

festival of lights yankee candle

Sensing there must be more to this story, I went where no self-respecting person should ever go: the comments section. And there I started noticing a peculiar trend. People were coming out of the woodworks declaring that Festival of Lights® (FoL) is in fact not an original scent, just another YC holiday favorite — Home Sweet Home® (HSH) — repackaged. What now?!??!

One female user from Georgia wrote, “I just don’t know why yankee candle would give this candle a different name and look without letting the buyer know that it is home sweet home,” adding, “I like this version of home sweet home for the holidays, since blue is my fav. color.” Fair enough.

A Pittsburgh woman titled her review, “Cinnamon in disguise,” stating that there was nothing especially unique about this scent. An unimpressed South Carolinian iterated that FoL smells just like HSHonly “it’s not strong at all!” A copycat and wimpy? Boooo.

And then I got to the most damning evidence, a review from a female Eastern Seaboard dweller who wove quite the tale: “First of all, I must say that I love the Yankee Candle employee that helped me pick candle scents. Elizabeth was awesome! After seeing that I have this scent and Home Sweet Home in my basket, she quietly walked over and informed me that Home Sweet Home and Festival of Lights were one and the same.”

Why was she quiet? Was she perhaps going rogue, betraying her employer’s trust by revealing their deepest, darkest secret? Was this the college girlfriend in The Truman Show all over again? Let’s just say my interest was piqued.

Elizabeth aside, the conclusion still wasn’t unanimous. Many users insisted that there are subtle differences among the two candles. Sherry S., a “top 5oo contributor” to the YC website (mazel tov), went through the painstaking process of breaking down each scent by individual notes, explaining that FoL has no apple, cherry, juniper berry, coumarin, or musk, all of which can be found in HSH, according to her.

Even those who didn’t delve into the FoL-HSH mishegas still couldn’t quite find the connection between FoL and Hanukkah.

One Jewish YC-lover from California wrote, “I bought this purely out of curiosity. What could/would a Hanukkah-inspired Yankee candle smell like? The hot grease of frying latkes? Applesauce and sour cream? I had zero expectations– simply curiosity. There is nothing about the scent that evokes Hanukkah. However, in and of itself, it is a pleasant fragrance and maybe it will do an effective job of masking the traditional cheap-diner smell of latkes frying in oil.”

A male user from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was disappointed not with the candle’s scent but its “weird wick,” proclaiming, “I will not be buying this again… Ill stick to my normal Christmas cookies,” thus implying that this candle smells just like Christmas cookies.

Ever the thorough investigative reporter, I called up YC’s customer service hotline and spoke to a lovely representative named Karen who patiently answered my many questions. She told me that while FoL and HSH may be similar, they are not indeed the same scents. She confirmed for me that HSH has top notes of apple and cinnamon spice, accented by nutmeg, cherry, juniper berry, cumin, and musk. She could not go into further detail about what makes up the “potpourri” scent of FoL, so that remains a true Hanukkah mystery.

home sweet home yankee candle

After I hung up with Karen, I decided to do some smelling of my own (yes, I bought both FoL and HSH for the sake of this story). First up was HSH, which I purchased in a teeny weeny jar — the cheapest I could find. Soon my apartment filled with a bright cinnamon scent and I started to desperately crave a churro. After letting it burn for 30 minutes, I extinguished the flame, opened all my windows, and aired the place out.

Once my home base was back to its normal neutral scent, it was time to light FoL, which I had to purchase in a large mason jar for $28 (Karen confirmed for me that limited edition holiday scents like FoL are only available in this size, though a number of the Christmas branded candles are available in a variety of sizes and cheaper prices, making the whole controversey even more insidious, forcing folks who just want the one Jewish holiday-themed candle into spending more money, but again, I digress). Like magic, my apartment again began to fill up with the warm scent of cinnamon spices.

Was it exactly the same as HWH? It’s hard to tell. I’m no nose genius. All I can say is they smelled pretty damn similar. And I definitely wasn’t transported to memories of Hanukkahs past. If anything, I was transported to being at my non-Jewish ex-boyfriend’s mom’s house over Christmas where scents like these permeated her home and I realized that Christmas really is the cozy, home-y holiday the movies so often depict. A lovely scent, to be sure, but not mine. Not Hanukkah.

If only Hanukkah didn’t fall in December, or anywhere near Christmas, and we could appreciate if for what it is: a minor Jewish holiday that smells like potatoes. Instead, our consumer-driven culture has resulted in companies like YC attempting to make a buck off the Festival of Lights by sticking some potpourri into a cinnamon mix and calling it eight days.

After letting my giant Festival of Lights® candle burn long enough to be considered proper research, I walked up to the counter, leaned over, and blew it out. As a small plume of smoke from the extinguished flame made its way from the burned up wick to my nose, there it was, a small miracle: the actual smell of Hanukkah.

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