Since opening my business, I've been viewing the holidays through a very retail lens. It's advantageous to be mindful of the steps that need to be taken, preparations that need to be made, and calendars that need to be followed for the season to be "successful." But as Christmas Day approaches, I've begun to realize paying too much attention to those targets means missing the spirit of the season itself. And, per the immortal lyrics of the Waitressses, "I couldn't miss this one this year."
It should come as no surprise that most of my holiday memories and joy come from smell. All of us associate certain scents with the holidays--some expected, some less expected. I hesitate to say "traditional," though, because tradition isn't an objective term. A tradition is built up from repeated, somewhat ritualistic practice. So your traditional holiday scents may indeed be very different from mine, or at least for different reasons...
Ah, yes, the cheery smell of mint: expertly blended in your winter mocha, dangling from the tree in a handy cane form, or swirled in your hot chocolate. These are all delicious and wonderful. But do you know what peppermint reminds me of, specifically tied to the holidays? Minted walnuts.
Once a year my mother would crack 1 or 2 bags of walnuts, painstakingly separate the meat from the shell (trying to extract the nuts "whole"), and dip them in a minted corn syrup coating. The nuts were so expensive and preparation so time consuming that this delicacy was almost exclusively handed out as hostess gifts when we visited her friends' homes during the season. But we'd get to taste a few ourselves and learn that gifts made with great effort and great love were the most precious.
We never had a live tree when I was growing up (more on this later), so the excitement in Christmas decorating was in unboxing treasures that had been tucked away since the year before. One (or, rather, two) such items were angel candle holders.
(I'm sure my mother still owns her set, but I figured it was easier to Google vintage candle holders and right-click on the photo than to dig through her way-too-many decoration boxes. No, really: way too many.)
Their adorable wreaths and outfits matched the color of their accompanying candles. As you might expect, the green candle was scented with pine and meant to go with the green angel, and the red votive smelled of bayberry (whatever that was) and belonged to the red angel. I, being contrary and also having a flair for decorative contrast, always wanted the green candle placed on the red angel and the red candle placed on the green angel. Mom didn't like that, but I was in charge of this particular decoration and usually won the argument. The one concession I didn't receive was my desire to burn the candles--that was never done.
I imagine since these candles were so protected, they took on almost a sacred significance, which attracted me to their scent. Pine was pretty common, but I only ever smelled "bayberry" during the brief time these candles were out of their yellowed tissue paper wrapping. As a result, whenever I catch a similar whiff, my mind goes straight back to the 1970s and these special pillars I was in charge of displaying.
Due to four children, at least one dog at any given time, and pine needles that, even I'll admit, are a royal pain to keep vacuuming up long past the holidays, I grew up with an artificial Christmas tree. Considering my obsession with scent, this meant the SECOND I was out on my own and had a bit of money to spare, I bought a live tree. And I've done so almost every year following.
That's a lot of trees.
My favorite tradition since I moved to the Triangle is to wander among the newly delivered trees at the NC State Farmer's Market in Raleigh the day after Thanksgiving. I rarely purchase a tree at that time--waiting to get a little closer to Christmas to ensure a fresh tree through New Year's--but the experience is a sort of annual homecoming. I take a big whiff as I walk into the pavilion and slowly make my way through the varieties, sampling the needles as I go. I'm always amazed at how different one tree can smell from another when you snap their needles and inhale their unique resins. Needless to say, I make a purchase based on specific aroma as much as on tree shape.
Still not surprised by my scent tradition? Well, here's the kicker: these mundane pine memories are mixed with fried seafood and hush puppies. Yes, you read that right. You see, the State Farmer's Market has a Calabash-style seafood restaurant that is now as much a part of my homecoming ritual as snapping needles on every tree while the owners aren't watching. The exhaust from the fryers pipes out over the landscape, inevitably mingling with the resinous cloud.
So, what started out as a convenience (there are lots of tree to choose from and potentially competitive pricing at the market) has become a requirement for me to truly feel Christmas is on its way.
(And you thought it was because I eat fried seafood when I buy my tree! . . Well, that too.)
Whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope you appreciate the scents as well as the sights of the season.