Christmas’ smells

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From roast turkey and clementines to seafood platters and cinnamon stars, traditional Christmas fare offers a kaleidoscope of smells – not to mention those of the tree and fireplace that complete this familiar, festive ambience. To shine during family dinners, we offer you the analysis of the olfactory atmosphere of Christmas, originally published in Nez, the Olfactory Magazine #12 – Design & Perfume.

The fireplace

There’s nothing like a blazing log fire to warm long winter evenings. Crackling flames in the fireplace and the woody, smoky, comforting smell they give off are a hallmark of Christmastime. By the fireplace we inhale a blend of guaiacol, with woody, spicy, vanillic facets; syringol, which is reminiscent of smoked bacon; methyl guaiacol, with smoky, leathery medicinal notes; and isoeugenol, which smells of clove. A greener log, chosen to make the fire last into the night, will produce a more humid scent, with a hint of moss.

The seafood platter

Should it be served before or after the foie gras and smoked salmon? While opinions diverge, it remains a grand classic of the holi- day season. Oysters are the main attractions here, with their marine, saline notes. As iodine and salt are odourless, this comes from a mixture of molecules with sulphurous (dimethyl sulfide, pentanal), green (hexanal, octanedione) and aldehydic (nonanal, decanal, nonadienal) facets. They can be enjoyed with a squirt of lemon, infusing lively citral notes, or with a shallot vinaigrette, which exhales a sharp smell due to acetic acid and sulphurous compounds.

The christmas tree

Do you prefer the Nordmann fir or the Norway spruce? Laden with garlands, baubles and other adornments, sheltering gifts under its boughs and filling the house with its delicious resinous scent, it is the centre-piece of the winter holidays! Regarding evergreens as a symbol of life during the heart of the cold season is nothing new: In ancient Egypt and Rome, houses were decorated with their branches for the winter solstice. It was in Germany during the Renaissance that the first decorated Christmas trees appeared. Over the centuries, the tradition spread throughout Protestant Europe – Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had one put up in Windsor Castle in 1841 – and then all over the world in the twentieth century. Once ubiquitous in France, the Norway spruce (Picea abies) has lost ground over the past twenty years to the Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), which makes up three-quarters of the season’s sales. Native to the Caucasus, the latter keeps its needles longer in heated rooms – but is distinctly less fragrant than the Norway spruce, which owes its suave and resinous scent to woody, camphoraceous bornyl acetate, turpentine-like alpha-pinene, fresh and woody beta-pinene, and camphene, which is typical of pine needles. More discreet and vegetal, the scent of the Nordmann spruce hails from carene, alpha-pinene, beta-pinene, beta-phellandrene, limonene and terpinolene.

Clementines, mandarins and oranges

Their juicy, vitamin-filled flavours are welcome refreshments after the feast. But it is before we savour them that citrus fruits are at their most fragrant: When we peel them, we tear apart the tiny sacs that contain their essential oil. When it squirts out, it scents our fingers and the air with zesty, fresh, sunny notes. Full of limonene and octanal, oranges are the fruitiest and sweetest, while the greener, more bracing, bitter and slightly aldehydic smell of mandarins, native to China, is due to the additional presence of gamma-terpinene, alpha-terpinene, beta-terpinene and decanal. Clementines, a natural hybrid of the two discovered by Friar Clément Rodier in the early twentieth century, contain very few pips. They have a fruity, zesty profile with metallic nuances owing to myrcene and decanal.

The turkey

Whether it’s a turkey, a goose or a capon that is stuffed with chestnuts or truffles, poultry is a must for Christmas dinners. In ancient Rome, bountiful meals featuring a goose, among other delicacies, were served for the winter solstice. The tradition of eating poultry at Christmas endured, with turkey appearing on European tables in the seventeenth century: Brought back from America by Christopher Columbus, it became a main dish of choice. Roasted in the oven until its skin turns golden and crispy, it diffuses its grilled, fatty, almost caramelised smells in the kitchen. This irresistible aroma arises due to the presence of pyrazines, including dimethyl pyrazine, with its facets of roast meat and coffee; trimethyl pyrazine, which is reminiscent of hazelnut and mould; ethyl dimethyl pyrazine, which smells of popcorn and roasted cocoa beans; ethyl pyridine, with notes of tobacco and leather; and methyl thiazole, with green vegetable intonations.


Especially appreciated in the Yuletide traditions of Northern Europe, they are found in gingerbread, cookies, mulled wine, etc. Their association with Christmastime dates back to the Middle Ages. In the monasteries of Northern Europe, Advent was dedicated to introspection and fasting, but spices were still authorised, as they were thought to purify body and mind. The star of Christmas spices is cinnamon, which owes its soft, warm notes to cinnamic aldehyde. Pungent, slightly medicinal and metallic, cloves are rich in caryophyllene and eugenol. Traditional blends also include cool spices: zesty ginger, whose “bite” can be traced to zingiberene, camphene, limonene, alpha- and beta-pinene; woody, aromatic nutmeg, which contains sabinene, terpineol, myristicin and alpha-pinene; and star anise, which derives its anisic facets from estragole, anethole and safrole.

Thank you to perfumer Serge de Oliveira (Robertet) for his olfactory descriptions.

Main visual: © Jérémy Perrodeau


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