What is Christmas Scent?

Wednesday, 24 December, 2014

The Christmas scent is a powerful enhancer of the holiday mood. This article discusses some of these traditions in terms of the scents related to them.


The Countries where Christmas is celebrated have a variety of traditions related to the season. Based on the certainty that Christmas Scent is a powerful enhancer of the holiday mood, this article discusses some of these traditions in terms of the scents related to them. There are fascinating cross-cultural influences in some of the discussed scented elements, most of which have travelled global distances, remaining in the habits of different people for centuries, with endless cultural re-creations.

This review is based on the research performed by Open-Senses involving qualitative interviews with more than 50 people from diverse countries all over the world, and mainly in Europe, plus desk research about the matter. While not exhaustive, it is about commenting some of the more widely spread, beloved, iconic, scent memories linked to Christmas, and particularly the traditions that have similarities in different countries. They are the following:



One of the most favourite Christmas smell icons is probably the coniferous scent of a live Christmas tree in the house, nothing can compare. The most commonly used species are fir (Abies), which have the benefit of not shedding their needles when they dry out, as well as retaining good foliage colour and scent.  However, species in other genera are also used, mainly Picea and Pinus, adapted to different climates.

In Norway and Sweden, veneration of the Christmas tree is a pre-Christian tradition: because the trees are evergreen, they were considered sacred symbols of life, survival and immortality. In Western Germany, the ‘Paradise tree’ was used as setting for the medieval plays on the ‘Day of Adam and Eve’ in December 24th. Since there were no available apple trees in the middle of winter, the evergreen conifer was used instead. Red apples and wafers were hanged on it to represent the forbidden fruit and the redemption (the Host), respectively. The ‘Paradise tree’ was later placed in homes, the apples were replaced by round objects such as shiny red balls and the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. While originated in Northern Europe, the Christmas tree tradition has spread in Europe, North America and all over the world. Today both natural and artificial trees are used, while the authentic coniferous scent is not easy to find.



The Bible says that Three Wise Men brought gifts of gold, Frankincense and Myrhh to the infant Jesus as he lay in the manger. While gold has no smell, the last two gifts are resins (dried tree sap) with their characteristic scents. Frankincense comes from trees of the genus Boswellia and Myrhh, of the genus Commiphora. They are both commonly found in northern Africa and the Middle East. Frankincense and myrrh have always been used to create incense.

Today, the Midnight service on Christmas Eve is a time when many people go to church. Many Churches smell of ‘Incense’, especially at Christmas. Some commonly used raw incense materials are: Borneol camphor (Dryobalanops aromatica), Sumatra Benzoin (Styrax benzoin), Omani frankincense (Boswellia sacra), Guggul (Commiphora wightii), Golden Frankincense (Boswellia papyrifera), Tolu balsam (Myroxylon toluifera), Somali Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), Labdanum (Cistus villosus), Opoponax (Commiphora opoponax), Sandalwood powder (Santalum album) and Makko powder (Machilus thunbergii).



Traditionally the most luxurious ingredients available have been used to prepare the Christmas food. Thus, such traditions give an idea about what ingredients are/were considered as most valued, though affordable by the majority of people. This is probably the reason why spices are one of the most relevant Christmas elements in some countries. Spicy notes are some of the most widely popular Christmas scents. The main typical Christmas spices are: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and ginger. Cinnamon is the top one. They are the key ingredients in many typical Christmas recipes from different Countries. Some of them are the following:

Speculaas (Flemish Dutch); Speculoos (Dutch Dutch); Spekulatius (German); Spéculoos (French) is a brown, thin and very crunchy type of biscuit. They are made from white flour, brown sugar, butter and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper. Belgian varieties use less spice. Traditionally consumed on St Nicholas Feast (December 5-6) in the Netherlands, Belgium and Northern France, they typically have some image on the front side, while the back side is flat. There are several interpretations for the origins of the name Speculaas. It may derive from Latin ‘Speculum’, which means mirror, because the images are cut as a mirrored bas-relief into a wooden stamp. ‘Specerij’ the Dutch word for spice is another possible origin. In the United States, New Zealand and Australia, these biscuits are often sold as ‘Dutch Windmill cookies’.

Gingerbread (English); Lebkuchen/Pfefferkuchen (German); Pain d’Épices (French: literally ‘spice bread’) are typical Christmas cakes/cookies made with Ginger. In the Nordic countries, the most popular form of ginger confection are the ‘Pepperkaker’ (Norwegian), ‘Pepparkakor’ (Swedish), ‘Brunkager’ (Danish), ‘piparkakut’ (Finnish) or ‘Piparkoogid’ (Estonian). In the Netherlands and Belgium, a soft and crumbly gingerbread called ‘Peperkoek’ or ‘Ontbijtkoek’ is popularly served at breakfast time or during the day, thickly sliced and often with butter on top. Gingerbreads are also consumed in Russia. In Poland, gingerbreads are known as ‘Pierniki’. In Croatia, a similar product, known as ‘Licitar’ is traditionally made in the shape of a heart and is used as an ornamental gift. With the help of their parents, German children often build Gingerbread houses (similar to the "witch's house" of Hansel and Gretel story). Covered with a variety of candies and icing, they are popular Christmas decorations.



Wine, usually red, combined with spices and typically served warm, is another typical Christmas tradition in many European Countries, where there it can be found with diverse recipes and different names, but all of them around the same concept: warm, spicy wine.

Glühwein (German); ‘Vin Chaud’ (‘Hot wine’, French) is popular in German-speaking countries and the region of Alsace in France. Red wine is heated and spiced with cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods, cloves, citrus and sugar. It is drunk pure or ‘mit Schuss’ (with a shot), which means there is rum or liqueur added.

Glögg is the term for spicy wine in the Nordic countries. The main classic ingredients are: red wine, sugar, spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and bitter orange, and optionally also stronger spirits such as vodka, akvavit or brandy.

Mulled wine is the English name for this warm recipe, made with wine, sugar, orange juice, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg and cloves.

Greyano vino (‘heated wine’) from Bulgaria, is made with wine, honey and peppercorn. Apples, lemon or oranges can also be added.

Kuhano vino ("cooked wine"), in Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia is made from red wine and nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, sugar and orange zest, often served with slices of orange or lemon.

Similar recipes of ‘boiled wine’, with variations in the spicy and fruity ingredients are found in the Czech Republic: ‘Svařené víno’; Hungary: ‘Forralt bor’; Italy and France: ‘Vin Brûlé’; Poland: ‘Grzane wino’; Romania: ‘Vin fiert’; and Russia: Глинтвейн (or ‘Glintwein’).



In the European winter, apples and oranges were traditionally the most widely available fresh fruits. Thus, their scent is present in many Christmas traditions, often in combination with spices:

Christmas orange pomander. This traditional Christmas delicacy is a made by studding an orange with whole dried cloves and letting it cure dry, after which it may last several years. It both freshens and perfumes the air, and it keeps drawers of clothing and linens fresh, pleasant smelling, and moth-free. The name ‘pomander’ comes from the old French ‘pomme d'ambre’ (i.e. apple of amber), a ball made of perfumes, such as ambergris (whence the name), musk, or civet. In the middle ages, pomanders were an early form of aromatherapy. The pomander was worn or carried in a vase, also known by the same name, as a protection against infection in times of diseases.

Apple Pie is a typical Christmas dessert in the US. The traditional English apple pie is made with good apples, spices (mainly cinnamon), figs, raisins and pears, in a coffin of pastry. Saffron is used for colouring the pie filling. Thus, ‘Apple & Cinnamon’ is an iconic Christmas scent in many Countries. In English speaking countries, apple pie is a dessert of enduring popularity, eaten hot or cold, on its own or with ice cream, double cream, or custard. Migrated to North America with the colonization, Apple Pie became a symbol of American prosperity and national pride since the nineteenth century, which is summarized in the statement  ‘As American as apple pie’, meaning ‘Typically American’.



Traditionally, certain fresh fruits were not available in the Christmas period in Europe so they were used as dried fruits: raisins, dried figs, peaches, apricots or plums. They are the base of several typical Christmas recipes:

Christmas pudding is traditionally served on Christmas Day in the UK. It has its origins in medieval England. Many English households have their own recipe, some handed down through families for generations. Essentially the recipe includes dark brown sugar, suet, sultanas, raisins, currants, flour, breadcrumbs, chopped almonds, lemon zest, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices. It is very dark - almost black – because of the dark sugars and the long cooking time. The mixture can be moistened with the juice of citrus fruits, brandy, rum and other alcoholic beverages. Christmas puddings are often dried out on hooks for weeks prior to serving in order to enhance their flavour. It is soaked in brandy and lit, and brought into the room on fire (with a blue and yellow flame). This gives a special smell. The pudding has a sprig of holly on top.

Panettone is a type of sweet bread loaf originally from Milan (in Milanese it is called ‘Panaton’), usually prepared and enjoyed for Christmas and New Year in Italy, Malta, Brazil, Germany and Switzerland, and is one of the symbols of the city of Milan. In Latin America, especially in Venezuela, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Peru, it is a Christmas dinner staple. The origins of this cake appear to be ancient, dating back to the Roman Empire, when ancient Romans sweetened a type of leavened bread with honey. Northern Italian immigrants to South America brought their love of Panettone. It is made during a long process that involves the curing of the dough, which is slightly sour. The process takes several days, giving the cake its distinctive fluffy characteristics. It contains candied orange, citron, and lemon zest, as well as raisins, which are added dry and not soaked. It is served in slices, vertically cut, accompanied with a sweet wine, such as Asti or Moscato d'Asti.

Weihnachtsstollen / Christstollen is a traditional German cake, similar to the Italian Panettone, that contains dried fruit and is covered with sugar. The cake is usually made with chopped candied fruit and dried fruit, nuts and spices. A similar cake, found in Dutch cuisine, is called a Kerststol in Dutch.



Another food traditionally available in the European winter, particularly in the Mediterranean Countries, is nuts: almonds, pine nuts or hazelnuts, which are the basis of some typical Christmas sweets:

Turrón (Spanish), ‘Torró’ (Catalan), ‘Torrone’ (Italian), or ‘Nougat’ is a confection, typically made of honey, sugar and egg white, with toasted almonds or other nuts, and usually shaped into either a rectangular tablet or a round cake. It is frequently consumed as a traditional Christmas dessert in Spain and Italy. There are also some varieties in Latin America and the Philippines. All versions of the name appear to have been derived from Latin ‘torrere’ (to toast). The actual confection might have been derived from the cuisine of Iberian Muslims during the Christian conquest of Spain, as they had a similar dessert named ‘Turun’. Turrón or Torró has been known at least since the 15th century in the city of Jijona/Xixona (formerly Sexona), north of Alicante. The similar Torrone is typical of Bagnara, Taurianova, Benevento and Cremona in Italy. Turrón is commonly consumed in most of Spain, some countries of Latin America, and in Roussillon (France). Variations are found throughout the Mediterranean basin. There are similar confections made in the Philippines, though they are not linked to Christmas celebrations.



In Northern Europe and North America, Christmas celebrations are associated to winter and the cold weather. Therefore, the ‘scent’ of ‘cold air’, snow and ice is associated to the Holidays. In countries like Holland, Germany and Switzerland, people go skating to the ice. When the nose starts freezing, by inhaling deeply, a special sensation of ‘frozen air’ can be perceived, a sort of ozonic fresh and tinkling smell. Although difficult to reproduce in a fragrance, many aromatic Christmas products sold are inspired by this iconic sensation.



Roast goose, duck or turkey can be prepared for Christmas day in many countries. This is one of the most universal Christmas traditions, including at least the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Iceland, Spain, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Guatemala, Portugal, Brazil, Hungary, Switzerland and even Hong Kong. In France and many parts of French-speaking Switzerland, turkey is stuffed with chestnuts.



Many Christmas rituals in Europe and North America are performed next to the fireplace. Therefore, the smell of an open fire (smoky and woody) is also an iconic Christmas scent.