‘Tis the season…or so the ads proclaim. Drive through the streets, and houses blaze with colored lights, some garish, others more tasteful. Walk into any store and holiday decorations abound, but by now, weeks old now, my brain has been on strike, protesting against the commercial glitter and recorded Christmas carols playing since Halloween. Although one might say, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” the decorations and lights enticing us to buy, buy, buy, have grown wearisome. I have avoided malls for the past several weeks to every extent possible, knowing I will only morph into a modern-day zombie unable to make any sort of decisions about gift choices. My holiday spirit has taken cover from the full court press of commercialism, sadly unescapable in our society. Add to that, I live in a place, unlike the places of my childhood or Canadian years where snow isn’t visible, even in the far off mountain tops.
But take heart. This morning I baked some pumpkin spice scones for my husband’s birthday breakfast. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of cinnamon, sugar and nutmeg. “It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas,” I sang as I pulled the pan of scones from the oven. Last night, we set up our tree, ready to be decorated with our collection of ornaments, a hodge-podge of figures, shapes and colors, acquired each year of our daughter’s lives they had their children, and the tradition continues for each of our grandchildren. The tree is fake, something we resorted to in our empty next holidays when, more often than not, we’d be traveling to spend the holidays with one or the other daughter. I missed the smell of pine, so I placed a few pine boughs around the dining table, inhaling the fragrance and remembering the Christmases of childhood, climbing into my father’s pickup truck to head into the mountains to cut our tree. I felt the first blush of holiday spirit.
Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away. — Helen Keller
“The eyes have it,” we often hear, or do they? Our ability to smell is highly linked to memory. A smell can trigger a flood of memories, influence moods and even affect work performance. According to author Sarah Dowdey, “smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.” Smell is our oldest sense, as Tom Stafford describes in a BBC online article. It has its origins in the rudimentary senses for chemicals in air and water – senses that even bacteria have. Before sight or hearing, before even touch, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them. Smell is unique among our five senses. Unlike the other four, smell enters directly, deep into the brain.
In the 1990 book, A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman writes, “Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it…
We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear. But we smell always and with every breath…Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us…
The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak. Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance. A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them…When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory. Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”
Ah, those cracking heart strings…All it took to finally enliven my holiday spirit, after weeks of Christmas advertisements and carols playing everywhere, was the smell of a few pine boughs and pumpkin scones baking in the oven. Memories of Christmases past flooded into my head. Smells were doing the work of a Christmas spirit cheerleader. Perhaps you have similar associations with pine and cinnamon, or perhaps it’s other smells, like the ones of Hanukkah, potato latkes sizzling in the pan or chocolate gelt, unwrapped, given after spinning the dreidel. Whether Christmas or Hanukkah, smells may bring up childhood memories or ones more recent, one that make you smile, ones that bring tears to your eyes. Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”
The candles flicker in the window.
Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.
If you squint,
the neighbors’ Christmas lights
look like the Omaha skyline.
The smell of oil is in the air.
We drift off to childhood
where we spent our gelt
on baseball cards and matinees,
cream sodas and knishes…
(From “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” by Steve Schneider, in: Prairie Air Show, 2000)
Let your nose guide you to inspiration as you write this week. List the smells you associate with the Christmas or Hanukkah. What memories do they invoke? Write some.