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When early humans discovered fire, they not only stumbled upon a great way to grill up wooly mammoth burgers for dinner and keep the cave cozy at night, they also came up with one of my all time favorite decorating tools: candlelight. The older I get, the more convinced I am that everything—and everyone—looks better bathed in the soft, warm and forgiving glow of a candle.

Candles have been a mainstay of the Nell Hill’s look for decades. And season after season, as we find new ways to use these oldies but goodies in our interior design, our passion for candles just burns brighter. Ready to bring more candlelight into your home? Here are some tips to light your fire.

While I love to use candles in my year round decorating, I’m especially crazy about them during the holiday season and the cold, dark months of winter that follow. My current favorites? Clusters of votives and groupings of pillar candles.

If you look closely at the candles burning in my home, you’ll see that most of them aren’t really burning at all. They are fakes — battery operated candles that look just like the real thing.  I used to turn up my nose at fake candles, but today’s battery operated candles are so lifelike, complete with drips and flickering flames, that I’ve almost completely thrown over real candles for the cheaters. Any why not? You get all the beauty and none of the fire danger of real candles.

Selecting the shape, size and style is only the beginning of decorating with candles. I think the fun part is picking the candle holders that will add style to your displays. Here are a few of my favorites right now.

A Cadre of Candlesticks

If you want to create a look of unsurpassed elegance on a dining table, look no further than silver candelabra. I use my trusty five-arm candelabras over and over again when I create tablescapes for dinner parties and for my open house tours. Sometimes I go with tradition and top them with tapers. But more often than not, I place something unusual on top of one or more of the candlesticks cups, like a little gourd, a Christmas tree ornament, a pomegranate or a pinecone. It’s fun to catch people off guard and see them do a double-take as they drink in the unusual display.

It’s also lots of fun to use these formal candelabras in unexpected places. A friend of mine has a gorgeous candelabrum on a stand next to the bathtub in her guest bathroom. I’m already a fan of soaking in a steaming hot tub, so the romantic candlestick is all the invitation I need to disappear until I turn into a prune.

When our daughter got married at our home a few years back, she wanted the decorations to create an understated, elegant look that was also full of drama. What could help us achieve that tall order except candles?

To give our guests a warm welcome, we lit up our front walkway with two grand candelabras fitted with battery operated pillar candles. We added pools and pools of votives, clustered on each step leading up to the door. To lend sparkle to the trees in the front yard, we hung wreaths horizontally from the low boughs then covered them with faux votives. In the courtyard, we brightened the garden path with hundreds of hanging votives that were suspended from the branches of the trees and shrubs. Each table centerpiece featured a server holding votives. The effect was absolutely breathtaking.

Another style of candle holder that is high on my list right now? Large, chunky pillar candlesticks. If you want your everyday displays to turn some heads, just add a few big pillars. This pair of turned wood candlesticks brings necessary vertical height to this display on a coffee table ottoman at Nell Hill’s Briarcliff. Even though the sticks are the same height, we put different sized pillar candles on top to give us the height variation necessary to make the display interesting. Notice how we anchored the tableau on a wooden tray that matched the candlesticks so the candlesticks wouldn’t look out of place in this blue-and-white display.

I have been using these sleek, contemporary silver candlesticks in lots of different ways this year. Sometimes they are part of a centerpiece, serving as a riser for an unexpected natural treasure, like a pumpkin, a potted fern or a bird’s nest. I’ve grouped them in front of the hearth in the warm months, when the fireplace was not in use. Today, they are the head-turning focal point of this knockout coffee table display.

Boasting the same sleek lines as the tall silver candlesticks, these shorter glass pillar candlesticks are a great pick for mantels, coffee tables and side tables. They are like a wonderful blank canvas just screaming to be topped with something fabulous. For the holidays, I can just see them holding up large tree ornaments, surrounded by twists of faux pine greenery. Or, you could top them with flickering faux pillar candles then place them on a mirrored tray that would flash and sparkle with the candlelight.

If you have a lovely piece of artwork you want to showcase above a console table, perhaps in your entry or in a hallway, try flanking it with a pair of tall, beefy pillar candlesticks like these. I think the tall candlesticks act almost like a frame, calling attention to the painting hung between them.

For the Love of Lanterns

Lanterns are one of the best decorating work soldiers you’ll ever find. And like candlesticks, they are a core ingredient of the Nell Hill’s look, especially in the fall. And, like candlesticks, you can use them as they were originally intended, to hold a candle, or you can break with tradition, like I often do, and use them as mini display cases for seasonal decor. This rustic lantern graced my front porch during my fall open house. Instead of a candle, I used it to display a white pottery compote holding a gourd that matched the lantern’s soft hues.

This holiday season at Nell Hill’s, we are really into decorating with clusters of hanging lanterns. We’ve created groupings out of odd numbers of similar lanterns, then hung them together, all at different heights. Try doing the same at your home this year. How about hanging a grouping of three or five lanterns together from a tree branch in your back yard?  Or suspend them from the pot rack that hangs over your kitchen island. Groups of lanterns also look ideal hung over a kitchen table. The lanterns both ground the table and chairs and give the space loads of character. For added charm, hang the lanterns from seasonal ribbons or attractive chains trimmed with a bow.

Want to dress up your front porch or entry for the holidays? Just place a lantern on top of your black iron garden urn, then have fun adding seasonal embellishments. Twist a strand of faux pine garland around the lantern and urn, so it trails slightly on the ground. Then tie a large bow on the handle of the lantern. Insert a big battery operated pillar candle inside the lantern and presto, your door looks amazing, and it only took a few minutes.

Next Week …There is nothing better during the holidays than to fill your home with family and friends. Next week, I’ll give you some tips on how to spoil them rotten.

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19 Responses to “Light Your Fire for Candles”

  1. Carol Hall Says:

    I love your newsletter. I have a question, I have a mantle that is a short area to decorate as the ceiling is low in that area of my lower level family room. What suggestions would you have when height is an issue?



  2. Don Wilson Says:

    I like using lanterns as enclosures for candles, too. I find it has a masculine appeal for me that often traditional candlestix and candles do not have. You have taught me to think of candles as year round decor, not just at Christmas! Your display illustrating how to dress up the lanterns with everything from pine branches to pumpkins have helped me rethink use of candles and lanterns. Your shop is always filled with great new interpretations of candle holders and candlestix. You are a joy to many!

  3. Betty Cunningham Says:

    HI Nell,
    I always open your emails becausae I love to see what great new ideas you graciously share with us. You always leave me wanting more. I consider myself creative and somewhat edgy but I am always left with some new ideas to try everytime I read your Blogs. I too have been thinking more about the fakes and was also turned off by them , but I have to say they really do look real now. I just hate the idea of going to that tray and turning on 50 tealites and then who knows how long they will last????
    Thank you for always giving me joy!

  4. Maggie Wagensomer Says:

    Dear Mary Carol- Love your ideas!! I only wish you would open up a store in the Chicago area… Hinsdale to be precise… We would welcome you…

  5. Maggie Wagensomer Says:

    Dear Mary Carol- Love your ideas!! I only wish you would open up a store in the Chicago area… Hinsdale to be precise… We would welcome you with open arms….

  6. Maggie Wagensomer Says:

    Dear Mary Carol- Love your ideas!! I only wish you would open up a store in the Chicago area… Hinsdale to be precise… We would welcome you with open arms.. Thanks for all the wonderful tips!!…

  7. Betty Cunningham Says:

    Okay so forgive me Mary Carol, I was so intent on thinking about the shop that I called you Nell . Sorry about that.

  8. Jan Steinlage Says:

    Hi Mary Carol – I absolutely love the monthly blogs! The information is invaluable!! I do have one question: Can you tell me if the black iron garden urn, the three different sizes of glass pillar candlesticks, the glass mirrored wood tray that are all shown in this October blog (and also wooden dough bowls that I have seen in your September blog) are all available at the Atchison store? I want to buy them right away.

  9. Jan Steinlage Says:

    Hi Mary Carol – I absolutely love the monthly blogs! The information is invaluable!! I do have one question: Can you tell me if the black iron garden urn, the three different sizes of glass pillar candlesticks, the glass mirrored wood tray that are all shown in this October blog (and also wooden dough bowls that I have seen in your September blog) are all available at the Atchison store? I want to buy them right away. Thanks! ~ Jan

  10. Laura Gabriel Says:

    Hey Mary Carol! Just wanted to warn you that the ladies from Denver and the Benedictine alums will (like always) be there to visit on November 13th! Can’t wait to see you and the house. Laura

  11. Dee Ann Says:

    As usual, you have inspired each of us to be creative and adorn our home with the special touch that only Mary Carol can provide! Thank you so much!
    Autumn is made more beautiful by your Blogs!!!!

  12. Bill Says:

    Hi Mary Carol…I too am concerned about the risk of a fire, from candles. In fact a few years ago I had a neighborhood Christmas Party and 30 minutes after everyone left, one of my friends heard something in the Living Room, we walked in to see what the noise was and the mantle was a blaze from taper candles that had burned down so far that they caught the live greenery on fire- never again will I ever burn candles on the mantle. I still decorate with candles but I don’t light them ( and I am a candle maker-in fact you probably remember last year receiving a package of candles from me last Christmas at your doorstep). I do burn 1 or 2 candles in the house during gatherings, but only where I know they will absolutely be watched by a person in charge of them. I also have never liked the fake candles, but I have to admit I have bought some over the past year and I have been pleased at how good they look in some places around the house, but I still like the real thing on the coffee table and in the kitchen to give visitors that great aroma when they walk in the room. I also use candles in all different ways to make my displays unique- like using them in different urns, baskets and various containers. I am anxious to see what great fakes you have in your stores, as always I’m sure they will be gorgeous as everything else always is. Thanks for all your help in making my little Greek Revival Cottage unique and comfortable for my friends and neighbors, they say Thank You too with their comments to me. Thanks for all your great ideas!

  13. Kathleen Gibson Says:


    I love candles and have purchased many from NH. I appreciate the decor and display advise, however could you please inform on the product knowledge of the candle, for this is what I am truely interested in.

    I am a candle snob…sorry to admit, and I need to know the facts about the candle.

    I love French candles…Bougies La Francaise, which burn from the center and of course no drip.

    Please give me product info on the candles you offer. Lead free?, etc.

    Thank you kindly,

  14. Susan Says:

    Would love to see some photos of the wedding decor!

  15. Mary Carol Says:

    Jan–I wanted to get back with you ASAP about your product questions. We have all the items you are inquiring about in the Briarcliff store, all (except the glass candlesticks in the Atchison stores) (but we could transfer them if need be). Call Janet @877-746-4320 for any help you might need.

  16. Mary Carol Says:

    Kathleen–Thanks for your inquiry about our candles. Most of our candles are soy based and and burn extremely clean. Our tapers–lead free, have a pure cotton wick, designed to provide a slow, even burn making tapers drip and smoke resistant.

  17. Pat Warner Says:

    Mary Carol; Greetings from Lake Quivira! The lanterns are so beautiful!!! I bought one of your large black ones last year, and everyone comments on it when they are welcomed at my door! Last Christmas eve, it actually burned a real red candle all night long without any problem! It was still going when we opened the door to let our family in on Christmas morning! It’s size allows me to put evergreen and a few pine cones inside with a red fake candle that flickers just like a real one. No worries and all the pleasure – you’re correct! I have used it with a bird’s nest and moss for Easter, and will conch shells in sand in it for summer! Thanks for your great ideas! You are amazing!

  18. Betty Kelley Says:

    I just seen a couple brown tone laterns, at a baby shower, that were given to the two hostess, They told me where they got them, they live in Kansas City. She told me there were different kinds, can you tell me how to look at the on your website, and how much. I do not see prices on anything or these laterns that were outside on posts. This one had a light inside that you switched on. First time I have heard of your store, live in Sikeston, Mo.

  19. Mary Carol Says:

    Hi Betty,

    Would love for you to call our toll-free line @ 877-746-4320 to discuss the different lantern options we have available. The large white one with the black metal top is $59.95. We no longer have an online shop, so feel free to call the this number to get more details about other lanterns.

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