The morning of December 25th this year will be a lot less cheery unless the World Health Organization gives Santa a free pass on COVID-19 restrictions so he can hand out presents to billions of kids on Christmas Eve night.
As it is, many people feel like cheer is at low ebb. Local authorities in my area strongly recommend we celebrate the holidays in our respective households; no visitors. Yikes! Looks like Christmas 2020 will have to run on memories – bad news for me, as I forget where I put the keys two minutes after setting them down.
Fortunately, the most enduring memories are those associated with smell, and the winter holidays are full of great smells. For Santa, a whiff of reindeer dung probably brings the spirit of the season into focus, but we have loads of sweeter smells to remind us of Christmases past.
Although the winter holidays are replete with pleasant smells like fresh-baked pies, turkey, ham, maybe some rum-soaked fruitcake, nothing evokes the holiday spirit like the smell of fresh-cut pine, spruce or fir. Those fragrant evergreen wreaths, trees and garlands help us remember. Although most American households which observe Christmas now use artificial trees, last time I checked, around eleven million families still bring home a real tree.
Every type of conifer has its own mixture of sweet-smelling stuff – terpenols and esters if you want to be technical – that account for their “piney woods” perfume. Some people prefer the smell of a particular tree, possibly one they had as a child. A natural Christmas tree is, among other things, a giant holiday potpourri. No chemistry lab can make a polyvinylchloride-and-wire tree smell like fresh evergreen.
The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, but evergreen trees, wreaths, and boughs were used by many ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, to symbolize eternal life. In sixteenth-century Germany, Martin Luther apparently helped kindle (so to speak) the custom of the indoor home Christmas tree by bringing an evergreen into his house and decorating it with candles. For centuries, Christmas trees were brought into homes on December 24th and were not removed until after the Christian feast of Epiphany on January 6th.
In terms of regional favorites, the firs – Douglas, balsam, and Fraser – are very popular aromatic evergreens. Grand and concolor fir smell great too. When kept in water, firs all have superior needle retention. Pines also keep their needles well. Scots (not Scotch; that’s for Santa) pine outsells our native white pine, possibly because the sturdy Scots can bear quite a load of decorations without its branches drooping. But white pines out-smell Scots pines, in case a deeper fragrance is important to you. Not only do spruces have stout branches, they tend to have a strongly pyramidal shape as compared to pines, and their short needles make them easy to decorate.
The annual pilgrimage to choose a real tree together is for many families a cherished holiday tradition, a time to bond. I look back fondly on our customary thermos of hot chocolate, the ritual of the kids losing at least one mitten each, and the time-honored squabble – I mean discussion – regarding which tree is best. Good smells and good memories.
One of the pandemic’s side effects seems to be a heightened interest in natural Christmas trees, and I’m told that in some places they’re in short supply. Nonetheless, I encourage everyone to consider a natural tree if you’re used to artificial ones. Christmas trees a renewable resource, and they boost the local economy as well. If you aren’t able to cut your own from a tree farm, do yourself a favor this year and purchase a natural tree from a local vendor, who can help you select the best kind for your preferences and also let you know how fresh they are. Some trees at large retail outlets may have been cut some time before they show up at stores.
For the best fragrance and needle retention, cut a one- to two-inch “cookie” from the base before placing your tree in the stand, and fill the reservoir every two days. Research indicates that products claiming to extend needle life don’t really work, so save your money. Tree lights with LED bulbs don’t dry out the needles like the old style did, and are easier on your electric bill too.
Whatever your traditions, I hope your family, friends, and evergreens are all well-hydrated, sweet-scented and a source of good memories this holiday season, even if you can’t all be together like years past.
Photo of White House Christmas Tree provided by The White House.