There is a song entitled It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, and that’s certainly true. But, for me the fragrances of the season have always exercised a powerful pull as the holidays approach.
Although our sense of smell pales to insignificance compared to that of insects and even dogs, it strongly links us to past experiences. Luckily, most of my fragrance triggers are set by past pleasant times.
Did you ever stop to realize that seasons have distinct aromas? Spring has a brisk, growing, green, moist soil smell. Summer is redolent with heavy humidity and yes, I can smell it. Green plants and flowers and cut grass all contribute their portion of the aromatic symphony. But fall, ah! Fall. I love the fall. Everything seems to be slowing down and waiting. It’s a peaceful time, one of tranquility. The rush of popping seeds, bursting buds and vigorous thunderstorms are largely past. Birds have ceased their frantic proclamation of reproductive readiness. Their eggs have hatched and young have fledged. No more frenetic rushing around by birdy moms and dads to stuff their bottomless offspring. And then comes the first waft of powerful fragrance that really stops me in my tracks. Leaves burning.
Burning leaves produce a fragrance that almost ought to be illegal and in many places, it is. (Bans on burning leaves ought to be banned. Pure air be hanged. Ban the burn bans, I say.) My senses slip into slow motion and the time machine of my mind immediately transports me back to my childhood when great piles of leaves sent their smoke into the heavens. An almost overwhelming desire comes upon me to jump into a big leaf pile (not a burning one) and drowsily stare at the sky. The deep blue of summer sky has paled somewhat, and the air smells – sharper – somehow. Contentment suffuses my soul. If I were a cat, I’d purr.
But fall is only a prelude. Winter is on the way and with it Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day – those sublime times when things have finally wound down, when “peace on earth; good will to men” take on new meaning.
The air is crisp. The sky is pale blue. Winter air has a particular metallic brittleness that invigorates and stimulates. Those of us who have lived where it snows have often sniffed the air of a dark winter night and commented “it smells like snow.” And sure enough, snow it does. Sniffing carefully, I think I can almost smell the sweet fragrance of St. Nicholas’ pipe smoke as it “encircled his head like a wreath.”
Holiday fragrances are almost endless in their variety. Fireplace smoke suffuses the outdoor air with bitter-sweet nuances. In the house, brief back-drafts subtly spice the warm air of home as puffs of smoke escape the hearth and chimney. Pumpkin and mince pies, and Christmas cookies bake as cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla scent the air. Turkeys and hams lend their delectable presences.
The power of a fragrance to cause memory flashbacks is familiar to everyone. A whiff of burning leaves or wood smoke rekindles recollections of fall, picnics, or camping. The French poet Marcel Proust said that to best experience memories he needed to taste and smell them. He wrote, “after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered… the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”
In short, Fall, Winter, and the Christmas season are blended together in my mind in an inexplicable, fragile, powerful mix hard to explain but wonderful to experience. It’s a time when, after a long year of political harangues, wars and rumors of wars, crime, deception, and man’s inhumanity to man, I actually begin to hope again. I hope for happiness and health for everyone, love and forbearance and peace. A peace that fills the human soul with warmth and charity for all. In the face of all that the mass media barrage us with, my reason tells me these may be vain dreams. Nevertheless, I hope.
In three days, many of us will celebrate and commemorate Christmas as a day when the Son of God was born, and brought with Him a new hope and challenge that we might learn to love each other, and believe His words, that we might live our lives as a reflection of His great love for us.
It is my hope and prayer that each of us might strive mightily this coming year to be more like Him in every deed and action. May we be gentle, forgiving, and constantly aware of Christ’s mission and his sacrifice for us.
May each of you experience the peace that surpasses all understanding throughout this season and the new year.
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click email@example.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.