Question: The candles that I got on Candlemas melted very quickly and made a big mess. How do you keep them so nice on the altar?
Answer: The candles used on the altar are called "pillar" candles, so named because their sides go straight up and down so that the candle has the same diameter throughout its length. Pillar candles tend to drip a bit more than the "taper" candles that are generally available for use on the dinner table, but last longer if properly cared for.
Pillar candles should be mounted in a holder that allows you to position them straight up and down. You will notice that dripping increases as the candle flame is disturbed by the air. If at all possible, keep your candles out of any draft; away from window, doors, fans, heaters and air conditioners. Candle "followers" are rings of metal or glass that are used to mitigate the effects of a mild draft. Some specially constructed followers are surmounted by a glass shield to allow use in stronger drafts. In really windy situations it is best to burn the candle inside a glass globe, sometimes called a "hurricane glass" or "lantern." A good candle shop will be able to provide such globes large enough even for medium sized altar candles.
Followers are fairly expensive, but are a good investment for anyone regularly burning beeswax candles. As this is written, plain followers for 7/8" candles cost around ten or twenty dollars each, but the 51% beeswax candles used on the altar are about three dollars each. Used with followers, the candles will give many more hours of use with much less mess. Polish followers with "Brasso." Absolutely avoid any brass cleaner containing abrasives. Be careful about scraping the insides of a follower with a knife to remove excess wax -- many are weighted internally with lead, which can be scraped away almost as easily as hardened wax, seriously damaging the follower -- water almost boiling works well.
Drip plates (also called wax plates, or drip catchers) are wide rings of metal or glass that slip over the top of the candle and slide down to the base to catch any wax that does drip. They are often available in candle shops and department stores that sell fancy table furnishings. Such plates help to keep wax off of the surface on which the candle is set.
Extinguish your candles with a snuffer; the flame must be smothered, not crushed out. Clean the snuffer occasionally so that it does not drop carbon black from the cone. If you have to blow out a candle, cup your hand behind it and then blow a short breath. This will keep wax from being splashed behind the candle, and takes much less breath than trying to blow out a candle without the cupped hand. With a little practice you will learn how to do it without getting wax on your hand. Never tip a candle while trying to extinguish it.
Before re-lighting a candle, trim the wick by breaking off all or most of the black burned part. Be sure the wick it straight up and down.
Apart from use at Mass, candles may be made from paraffin or other non-beeswax substances. If you simply want to use them for prayer, Father will be happy to bless some taper candles for you, which may eliminate some of the hardware requirements mentioned above.
Always be safe. Be sure that candles are placed where they won't set anything on fire. Be sure that they can't fall over or burn down and set their mountings on fire. Don't leave them unattended, particularly if you have young children or pets.
Question: What about votive candles in glass cups?
Answer: "Votives" are somewhat subject to drafts, but are an effective and low cost alternative to pillar candles. Votive candles (your grocer may call them "coffee-warmer" candles) come in a variety of sizes and styles. They are usually sized and priced by the number of hours they are expected to burn. They can be obtained in disposable plastic cups, or purchased alone, to be burned in your own glasses up to the 15 hour size or so. Above that size the candle is poured into a disposable glass or plastic cup.
Candle glasses can break. They should always be placed on a fireproof surface and/or burned inside of a second glass. Lacking a metallic candle stand, it is wise to place them on a heavy glass or ceramic plate. The candles should be properly seated in the glasses, and never tilted from the vertical. A small amount of water at the bottom of the glass -- a dozen drops, give or take -- will help to extinguish the wick before it falls over and cracks the glass. But never put enough water in the glass to float the candle. If you burn several candles, be sure that the glasses are a few inches apart; you should not be able to feel the heat from one on the glass of another.
Never allow anything to fall into the candle and burn. If you drop a match into a burning candle, blow the candle out and retrieve the match. Otherwise you are likely to break the glass and may start a serious fire. Never leave a pack of matches near a burning candle.
Never re-candle a votive glass without cleaning it. At a minimum, the remains of the previous candle must be removed -- particularly any remaining wick and the little metallic widget that hold the wick in place. A narrow spatula works well, and special cleaning tools are available, but you may find something quite usable in the housewares section of your local market. Microwaving your glasses in a bowl of water may help to remove the wax, but be careful about how your oven responds to the wick holders if you are otherwise unable to remove them. Ultimately, soap and hot water are generally needed -- and, perhaps, an ammonia based cleaner. Brasso works amazingly well to remove the carbon deposits that make glasses look so awful, but there are probably less expensive alternatives.
If you buy the larger sized candles at a grocery store, be sure you know what you are taking home with you. Some of them burn with smoke that will discolor your home furnishings. Some have glasses painted with pictures of saints or legitimate Catholic prayers, but others feature Voodoo or Santaria motifs! Some, usually in squat containers or teardrop glasses, contain oil of citronella to repel mosquitoes from porches and patios; you may not like the smell inside your home. Some of the church supply stores will fill small orders at reasonable price. Shipping costs are often significant, but can be offset by ordering together with friends. Ask Father if you would like to know where you can order candle goods.
Finally, we must recognize that in some cases "electric candles" are necessary. This is rarely the case when candles are attended by able bodied people, but unattended uses of real candles can be disastrous in homes and economically constructed churches. Presumably such "candles" are the last resort, but in some cases they are the prudent choice. A number of firms produce "electrified" candle globes. A six or seven day sized globe capable of holding a two or three watt "flicker bulb" (available from any serious lighting or hardware store) is much more impressive than a number of smaller units (which often don't flicker).
ALWAYS BE SAFE!