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Blasphemous, appropriative, and wildly popular: the rise of the celebrity prayer candle

Plastered onto a long, cylindrical, glass-encased prayer candle is the image of a man with the most perfect middle part you’ve ever seen. From the top of his haloed head flows a cascade of thick brown hair that ends just below his shoulders. The figure is adorned in robes and holding a ... hair dryer?

This prayer candle is one of Angie Quintanilla Coates’s best-sellers, and the image is not of Jesus — it’s of Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness. And unlike a traditional prayer candle that sells for about $2, this one is $12.

Van Ness is one of many stars on the celebrity-studded prayer candles Coates sells at her shop, The Five15. Others include Frida Kahlo, Dolly Parton, and political figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They are all fashioned to look like saints, or, as Coates calls it, a “modern version of a saint.”

Historically, prayer candles, sometimes referred to as votive candles, are a staple of both Catholicism and New Age rituals, often lit in churches or homes. Lighting a prayer candle symbolically calls on the guidance of whatever symbol or saint is featured on the candle: one purports to help you find a date; another will guard your health; a third will help you get that raise. But recently, these candles have undergone a sort of pop culture rebirth (read: appropriation) with independent boutiques and Etsy shops selling updated versions that replace the saints with celebrities.

Today, you can find just about anybody on a prayer candle — Cardi B, the Golden Girls, Steve Buscemi. It’s a religious item whose customer base is expanding despite the growing population of Americans who don’t affiliate with any religion. In fact, this decline in faith might be exactly why celebrity prayer candles are proliferating.

Celebrity prayer candles are a product of America’s declining faith

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has been steadily rising since the late 1980s. In 1991, only 6 percent of Americans marked their religious affiliation as “none,” but by 2016, that number had jumped to 25 percent. And in the 19-to-29 age group, 39 percent of respondents said they were religiously unaffiliated.

University of Toronto sociology professor Ethan Fosse studies social and cultural changes over time. His dissertation, which surveyed more than 100,000 Americans, found that the departure from faith is happening across age groups. “The people of the United States are becoming less and less religious and that is not an artifact of age,” he says. “It does appear that they are attending church and religious services less often. Jewish people are also becoming more secular.”

For years, Fosse says, America was seen as a counterargument to the popular theory that economic development would lead to secularization, as unlike other Western capitalist democracies, the United States had “heightened religiosity.” And although America is still more religious than the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the past 30 or so years have shown a distinct downward trend in faith.

He says there are a few reasons this is happening, one being “blowback” from the politicization of religion in the 1980s and ’90s.“People have very progressive attitudes on marijuana and gay rights, and religious groups have taken a diametrically opposing position,” he says. “Everyone knows a gay person and everyone knows someone who smokes marijuana.” So the teachings of many churches may seem more out of touch.

According to research from PRRI, 60 percent of the disaffiliated say they left religion because they don’t believe in the religious teachings, 32 percent left because their family wasn’t very religious growing up, and 29 percent left because they experienced negative teachings about or treatment toward gay and lesbian people.

However, this transition to “none” doesn’t explicitly express a disdain for religion. “It’s not people saying, ‘I’m an atheist, I hate religion,’” Fosse says. “They are just saying, ‘I don’t have a religion.’ They are not making a big sort of epistemological statement.”

In fact, many Americans align with being spiritual. Enter: the appropriation of botanica products.

Botanica stores are retailers that sell folk medicine, oils, and candles, all purporting to improve physical and spiritual well-being. They are common in Latin American and Caribbean countries, as well as parts of America with large Latin American and Caribbean populations. Botanica shops also often sell Roman Catholic products such as rosary beads, holy water, and prayer candles.

The origin of prayer candles isn’t clear. Sister Schodts Reed of Reed Candle Company says her father-in-law invented them in 1937. Some credit an unnamed German monk, and others say their earliest iteration was wax-filled milk bottles.

Replacing the saints with famous public figures extracts the judgment of religion but retains the comfort of the ritual. But beyond the positivity, these candles hold an overtone of irony. By replacing a saint with a celebrity that is outright silly (like Steve Buscemi or Harambe the gorilla), you are dismissing the function of the prayer candle altogether. And by replacing saints with public figures who have historically been rejected by religious institutions (like, say, the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race), you are communicating acceptance while also thumbing your nose at an entity that has the reputation of treating non-heteronormative people unjustly.

The appropriation of prayer candles

As popular as they are, the candles — and the appropriation they represent — rankle some. When Kim Kardashian sold a prayer candle with a photo of herself made to look like the Virgin Mary, there was quite a bit of backlash. Conservative groups have started petitions calling for the shutdown of the celebrity prayer candle retailer Illuminidol, saying the store is a “direct threat” to the Catholic faith.

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, a Catholic anti-defamation organization, says he finds the candles more silly than offensive. “By definition, a celebrity doesn’t need a PR presence, so the likely motivating force is narcissism,” he says. “By ripping off Catholic iconography, these celebs pay a backhanded compliment to the Catholic Church in their quest for notoriety.”

As a Mexican and a Catholic, Coates is careful about whom she puts on her candles. She has lived in Vancouver for 16 years but was raised in Monterrey, Mexico. “I grew up with a candle for each occasion,” she says. “They weren’t chic decoration, but they’ve always been in our homes.”

The first time Coates saw a non-saint prayer candle was four or five years ago, and it had an image of Justin Trudeau. Two years ago, she made her own by purchasing some plain prayer candles and photoshopping Frida Kahlo onto a sticker (“I just thought it was fitting because she was Mexican and a woman,” she tells me). Since then, Coates says, her sales have doubled.

To be respectful of the prayer candles she grew up with, Coates doesn’t use crosses when photoshopping her celebrity-saints; she also only puts people who “align with her values” on the candles. Coates says she is not very religious, but initially she felt a tinge of anxiety about her creations. She even called her mom to ask whether she found the Kahlo candle offensive. “I felt like, ‘Am I going to go to hell?’” she says. “I’m not as religious as my parents, and I don’t think my mom was enthusiastic about it, but she was okay with it.”

Because it is part of her heritage, she doesn’t see herself as inappropriately appropriating the products, but she isn’t sure whether those who didn’t grow up with prayer candles should make them. “Of course I would prefer if [those who sold celebrity prayer candles] were Mexican and Catholic,” she says. “But I would feel uncomfortable telling people, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that.’ Everyone is a small business trying to make it out there, and I try to focus on me and what I’m doing and being respectful in my own way and having good karma.”

On the other hand, Jason Mizrahi of Original Products Botanica says that he doesn’t mind if people appropriate the candles, as it ultimately helps his bottom line. Previously, when he tried to explain the traditional prayer candles he sold, many people didn’t understand what he was talking about. As prayer candles have become more mainstream, he has that problem less and less. Mizrahi adds, however, that the candles were strictly business for him. He grew up around them but never lit them at home.

Kerrin Serna sells celebrity prayer candles in her Etsy shop, the Eternal Flame. After seeing a set of Golden Girls candles she considered too expensive, she decided to make her own. Born to atheists, Serna didn’t grow up using prayer candles and says she has no connection with any religion. “I’m a boring white girl,” she tells me. “I grew up in Southern California, so I’ve always seen them around and I’ve always loved Mexican folk art. That’s always been one of my aesthetics.”

Unlike Coates, Serna doesn’t feel the need to only make candles with public figures she admires. For example, she made a Donald Trump prayer candle while he was campaigning in 2016. She says it was more of a joke candle, as she photoshopped him to have bright orange skin and tiny hands. But after he won the election, she took it down. “Even as a joke, it just wasn’t that fun to look at his face,” she says. “And I didn’t really get that many orders for it either.”

When asked if she felt like she was appropriating a culture, she said that if people are offended, they are “overthinking it,” as she sees her designs as parody art. “I don’t associate these candles directly with any religion,” she says. “It’s just glass and wax and a sticker with a design on it.”

She also adds that if she wants to put someone like Oprah (“she taught me right from wrong, she taught me how to be honest”) on a candle as opposed to a saint she’s never had a connection with, that is her prerogative. “I mean, yes, I am appropriating a religious symbol, but if that’s not my religion and I feel like I want to commit my thoughts and prayers to the well-being of Lisa Vanderpump, that’s a pretty American sort of thing.”

Religious candles have always been popular

But despite the overall decline in religiosity, celebrity prayer candles aren’t reviving an outdated industry: Religious candles are in fact the biggest segment of the candle market. According to a Credence Research report from 2016, votive candles make up 22 percent of the global candle market. In a 2007 New York Times article, professor of Hispanic history and culture Neil Foley said the candles are popular because “they have a job to do.” For any hardship in your life, there’s a saint for that.

“Desperate people, whether they are Hispanic, Anglo, African-American, Catholics, Pentecostals or Jewish Buddhists, burn candles because it can’t hurt and, who knows, it might help,” he told the New York Times.

Mizrahi, the Botanica owner, says that since 2016, he has seen an uptick in traditional prayer candle sales and a more diverse group of people buying them. When his father started the shop in 1959, a majority of customers were Latin and Caribbean, but today he sees plenty of white suburban families ordering them. He attributes the rise in sales to the 2016 election, saying “the whole thing with Trump made people very uneasy.”

Gabriel Perez/Getty Images

Although America is becoming less religious, the disaffiliated still crave certain aspects of organized religion, namely, the ritual. In his 2015 study “How We Gather,” Casper ter Kuile of Harvard Divinity School found that ritual played into why people were so loyal to CrossFit and SoulCycle, saying that “ritual is this really helpful way of making people think of something greater.”

Lighting a prayer candle is a ritual meant to refocus one’s energy, and lighting a celebrity prayer candle can do this in a way that feels more relevant to those who aren’t affiliated with organized religion.

Coates says her sales often reflect what is happening in the world. When a new season of Queer Eye comes out, her Fab Five candle sales spike, and when the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were happening, her Ruth Bader Ginsburg sales went up. Similarly, Serna’s most popular candle is RBG.

“I think [celebrity prayer candles are popular] because in some sense you see religions becoming more personalized,” Fosse says. “Saying you’re spiritual is saying that this is a personal relationship between myself and my bonds. It also kind of reflects the therapeutic movement ... religion less as a collective enterprise and more as self-help.”

If you’re in need of guidance, in other words, the question “what would Jesus do?” may not be as helpful as “what would Michelle Obama do?”

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Sours: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/5/13/18536883/prayer-candle-celebrity-etsy-aoc-rbg-appropriation

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