Health Team

Holiday scents can help set a happy scene

Posted December 1, 2008 3:05 p.m. EST
Updated December 2, 2008 2:31 p.m. EST

— There probably are very few people eating chestnuts roasted on an open fire during the holiday season, but anyone who has walked - even just once - down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue at Christmastime likely has a pleasant association with that warm, nutty smell.

You might also feel that way about a whiff of vanilla, cinnamon, pumpkin pie or gingerbread. There's also the ever-popular scent of a fresh-cut tree.

They're the smells of Christmas, filling the air. And they're an easy way to make your home feel instantly warm and holiday-ready.

"Home fragrance is decorating every time you do it," says home-fragrance guru Harry Slatkin. "Fragance is key to setting the mood. You can even choose a cheap wine to serve to your guests if your home smells delicious."

You can scent your home from scratch - get out those cookie sheets - or get help from dozens of commercial products such as candles, potpourris, sprays or plug-ins.

Use several complementary scents at the same time, Slatkin recommends.

"It's the only way to smell the scent," Slatkin says, "otherwise you get too used to it. It's olfactory desensitivity. Different scents awaken your nose."

But layering can be complicated, he warns, as you don't want your nose to be jarred as you move from room to room. He recommends using vanilla as a base - it goes with everything.

Orange is also easy to work with, he says. One idea is to take real oranges, poke cloves through the skin, making little scent balls that can be hung on the tree.

Slatkin also likes to roll out the scent welcome mat, firing off three shots of room spray by the front door just as guests arrive.

Even though Slatkin sells his candles and oils at Bath & Body Works, he doesn't discount creating aroma the old-fashioned way.

He's been known to boil apples on top of the stove. Or make gingerbread pancakes: "It's like the smell of bacon - there's nothing better - but this says `holiday,'" Slatkin says.

Some scents may be more personal and born of individual family traditions.

Scent marketer C. Russell Brumfield remembers knowing it was the holidays when he could smell fudge and peppermint. He also associates popcorn with Christmas because his family would string it to trim the tree. But with fewer people doing that nowadays, today's teenagers are more likely to link popcorn to the multiplex.

Scent has a well-documented link with memory, and it might be more noticeable this time of year because scent memories are largely formed during childhood.

Think about how music might have helped shape your teen years and a few lyrics can remind you of a high-school event, says Brumfield, who wrote "Whiff: The Revolution of Scent Communication in the Information Age" (Quimby Press). The same thing happens via smell when you recall your favorite days between the ages 1-11.

"The other four senses are wired to the left brain so we think about those things before we link emotion," Brumfield says. "Scent is on the right side. There's no thinking, it just affects our emotions."

We're drawn to "comfort smells," he adds, which are like "a tattoo on your mind - they make a lasting impression."

They also makes good gifts, adds Marcie McGoldrick, editorial director for Martha Stewart Living Holiday & Crafts. Balsam sachets, in particular, are a gift that keeps on giving since the scent is more broadly "winter" than "holiday," she notes, although she a big fan too of mulling-spice sachets.

"What's so nice about the scents of Christmas is that they're natural scents and they're evocative of other memories. They're easy to give to others because people relate to them, they have those same memories, too," McGoldrick says.