The sights and sounds of the season are pleasantly evident everywhere we go - bells ringing, lights twinkling, bright ornaments and glittering tinsel, and holiday music in the air.
And how about the warm, baked goodies and luscious candies and cakes that seem to pop up everywhere this time of year? Who can resist a bite or two?
Then there are the aromas that say, “Christmas time is here” – those fragrances that seem to take on special meaning this time of year. The warm, spicy, smell of cinnamon; the fresh, fruity tang of citrus; cranberry and bayberry (the Christmas berries) – light, sweet and earthy. And, of course, there’s the pungent, invigorating air of evergreen.
Here’s a little bit more about those special Christmas aromas:
Cinnamon: In ancient times, cinnamon was called the “golden spice” and the Chinese regarded the cinnamon tree as “the tree of life.” Cinnamon was known and used by man since before Medieval times and was valued as so precious that it was often used as a gift to be given to royalty.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a tropical evergreen that grows in Sri Lanka and South India. These trees can reach heights of 56 feet but they are maintained as shrubs of about 10 feet. These bushes are continually pruned back to produce new, tender stems. These stems are scraped of their outer bark, pith, and cork and the inner stems are left to dry and curl. Several of these are then rolled together to produce “quills” of cinnamon which we call cinnamon sticks. The bark of these quills is deliciously aromatic due to an abundance of aromatic natural oils.
In rolls, cookies, cakes, candies, pies, potpourris, candles, etc., the warm, sweet, smell of this “golden” spice is a must for the holidays.
Citrus: Perhaps the tradition of giving and receiving citrus fruits began with the Victorian custom of adding an orange, lemon, or lime to the treasures stuffed in the Christmas stockings hung along the hearth. What a treat it was for the children to find a plump, juicy, fruit among their Christmas gifts and then to be able to savor its succulent sweetness and that burst of citrus scent in the midst of winter while the snow and cold swirled outside. It was like a taste of sunshine and summer. Citrus fruits were a highly prized gift by young and older alike.
Citrus trees were originally grown in Southeast Asia where they were evergreen and grow to heights of 5 to 15 feet. Interestingly, the name “citrus” was taken from the Greek word “kedros,” meaning cedar or juniper. Maybe, citrus trees were the original Christmas trees each naturally bearing its own colorful ornaments (its fruits) and also bearing gifts in its fruits as well. This is of course speculation but an interesting thought to consider.
The fresh, fruity, fragrance of the citrus fruit is due to the flavonoids and liminoids in its rind.
Citrus can be enjoyed at Christmas time in many ways – in fruit breads, cookies, cakes or candies or in fruit punch. Dried fruit slices can be added to potpourris or strung together on garlands. Dried and crumbled rind can be added to fillings for sachets.
Cranberry and bayberry: A member of the heath family, cranberry plants are grown in cool, wet areas in the Northern Hemisphere. The plant itself is a small shrub or vine with small, rounded evergreen leaves. The berries are harvested in the late fall later than most other types of berries.
In North America, cranberries were first used as a food by the Native Americans who then introduced them to English settlers. Reportedly, the Native Americans brought them as gifts to the starving English settlers in Massachusetts. The settlers enthusiastically incorporated the berries into their Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. They were most grateful for this “winter berry” gift.
Bayberry trees are also called “wax myrtle” and they are native to areas along the Atlantic coast of the United States. The berries are gray in color and very waxy and aromatic. The leaves of the bayberry are evergreen. From early colonial times, bayberries were made into candles and were prized for their steady burn and bright glow. But even more special was the fact that they produced an aromatic fragrance – they were our first “naturally” scented candles. Colonials enjoyed using the candles as part of their Christmastime celebration for their fragrance and the glow.
Bayberry is most often found in candles and potpourris. Either way, its aromatic scent is a delight for the holidays.
At Christmas time, cranberries can be used in sauces, breads, muffins, cakes, and punch. Cranberry candles and potpourris tucked here and there throughout the house can add the sweet, delicate scent of this Christmas berry.
Evergreen: The aroma of pine, cedar, fir, etc. is unmistakable and, in the home, is a sure sign of the season. Crisp, fresh and pungent can all be words used to describe the fabulous fragrance of evergreens. Evergreens are a cherished tradition of the season shared by many countries and cultures. Symbolically, the evergreen branches of the Christmas tree represent the promise of spring and life anew. Lights on the tree reflect hope and peace for the season and the new year to come. And what home is not magically brightened by the presence and fragrance of a Christmas tree?
But when bringing in the scent of evergreen, don’t stop with the tree. Use evergreen boughs arranged along the mantel and on windowsills, or you can use branches to outline mirrors or pictures on the walls. Fill baskets with branches and pine cones, and a garland of pine can be hung around door frames. Evergreen seems to fit anywhere and go with anything and its special aroma is soothingly refreshing.
Though the sights, sounds and tastes of the holiday are the more attention-catching signs that the season is here, often the scents of the season produce some of the longest-lasting memories. For me, just the smell of cinnamon recreates pictures in my mind of baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother in her warm, cozy kitchen. The aroma of evergreen takes me back to the fun and excitement of the first year we went out to cut our own tree for the season. Memories are a cherished part of the holiday – savor the scents and fragrances of the season and let their memories add to the joy.