As I’m writing this post, the holidays are coming up fast. My tree is up, the fireplace is lit and even though the weather outside is somewhat dreary, the atmosphere inside is pretty jolly (and I promise that’s not just because I’ve already made a batch of mulled wine!).
One of the things I love most about Christmas is the smells. We don’t need a neuropsychologist to tell us that scents are closely linked to memory: a whiff of gingerbread or peppermint hot chocolate can bring us right back to the excitement of waking up on Christmas morning as kids.
To amp up the holiday feels, let’s have a look at 13 of my favorite typical scents that make your home smell like Christmas. Surround yourself with these throughout the dark winter months for a cozy feel and fully immerse yourself in the holiday magic!
1. Fresh-cut evergreens
I think we can all agree that no scent screams “CHRISTMAS” like the smell of freshly cut evergreens. There’s a reason so many of us still go through the relative hassle of buying or cutting down a real Christmas tree rather than opting for the fake alternative: they just smell so good.
Of course, you don’t need to lug a full tree into your house to enjoy the wonderful scent of pine. A few clippings will do the trick just fine!
Give the trees in your yard a little trim or ask friends and family members if you can snip a few branches off theirs. Then, deck those halls with homemade pine wreaths, incorporate a few branches in your Christmas dinner table décor or place pine branches in pretty vases around the house.
As mentioned in my other post on caring for a living Christmas tree, the balsam fir is a big holiday favorite because it’s one of the most divine-smelling evergreens around. But don’t forget: There’s a whole bunch of different types to choose from, all with different scent notes.
Here are a few of my favorites that will make your home smell like a cozy winter forest:
- Juniper: Tts berries aren’t just useful for making gin, but both the leaves and berries are also laden with citrusy and cedar-scented essential oils.
- Douglas fir: It doesn’t smell as strongly as the balsam fir, but its scent has a wonderful citrusy note to it.
- Cypress: More woody than the others, this one nonetheless maintains a typical pine smell as well.
Rosemary is one of the most popular herbs in Christmas cooking—it’s one of the star ingredients in my spiced holiday nut mix, for example—but did you know it actually used to be a popular Christmas decoration as well? For example, in his diary entry for Sunday 23 December 1660, Londoner Samuel Pepys wrote:
“(Lord’s day). In the morning to Church, where our pew all covered with rosemary and baize [a type of felted cloth]. A stranger made a dull sermon.”
Too bad about the dull sermon, but I bet that at least the place smelled wonderful. And did you know that studies even suggest the scent of rosemary can stimulate your memory and improve your mood?
The best part is that bringing the scent of rosemary into your home is easier than ever, as this shrubby herb has recently caught on as an option for folks looking for a mini Christmas tree. Set a little pine-shaped rosemary bush on your holiday table, slap on some decorations and you’ve got a centerpiece that doesn’t just look great, but smells fantastic as well.
A close cousin of the aforementioned rosemary, sage has been used by humans for cooking and traditional medicine since at least the Roman times. White sage is still utilized by some Native American communities for cleansing smudging rituals.
Christian legend has it that after Mary fled from Bethlehem with Baby Jesus, she stopped at a village, where she ended up having to hide behind a sage bush in order to escape King Herod’s soldiers. This is by some considered to be the source of the plant’s supposed curative properties.
Nowadays, we don’t really use sage as medicine anymore, but it is an essential ingredient in typical British Christmas stuffing (yum!) and tastes fantastic with a variety of meats and other recipes. No wonder we associate its scent with Christmas.
If you’re already buying some sage or clipping your plant for your holiday dinner, why not get a little extra? It’s easy enough to make a small decorative sage wreath. Pop a few sprigs of rosemary in there as well and voilà: a pretty and natural Christmas scent bomb. Once the herbs have dried, you can still use them for cooking.
Candy canes! Peppermint hot chocolate! Peppermint cookies! This hybrid species of mint is an absolute holiday classic. If you’re looking for scents that make your home smell like Christmas, you can’t miss it.
If you already own a potted peppermint plant, why not bring that baby inside, add a few festive garlands and give the whole thing the occasional shake to release its wonderfully scented essential oils? Added advantage: If the winter weather has given you a cold, the menthol released is sure to help open up your airways.
Make this: Natural Bourbon-Chamomile Cough Syrup
Alternatively, you could bake some peppermint cookies, whip up some cozy hot chocolate snugglers with a cheeky shot of peppermint schnapps, or even spend an afternoon DIYing some homemade scented candles with peppermint fragrance oil.
I don’t know about you guys, but as soon as temperatures begin to drop, I start putting cinnamon in everything. Cinnamon Christmas cookies, cinnamon-spiced mulled cider… cinnamon sticks are even perfect for DIY scented Christmas tree ornaments! That spicy warmth is just the definition of cozy.
Cinnamon has been considered a typical culinary winter spice for hundreds of years. Historians don’t appear to agree on whether it became popular to mask the smell of spoiled meat during winter, or if it had more to do with general (perceived) health benefits and food preservation reasons.
Or maybe it was generally reserved for the special occasion because it was historically mind-bogglingly expensive? In any case, it stuck.
A 2009 scientific paper suggests that we actually associate cinnamon so much with winter and the holidays that we like its scent less if we smell it in summer! Participants in the study associated cinnamon more strongly with winter than other classic scents like orange and cloves.
Conclusion? If you want your home to smell like Christmas, simmer some cinnamon sticks on the stove, bake some spiced Dutch speculaas cookies, or just light some cinnamon-scented candles.
Although I just mentioned that clove lost out to cinnamon when it came to scents that folks associate with cinnamon, participants still strongly associated it with the Christmas season.
I think we can all attest to this: the warm, spicy smell is just what you need on a cold and dark winter night. No wonder we all love to use cloves in chai, mulled wine, spiced cookie recipes, and other wintery comfort foods and drinks.
As with cinnamon, it’s possible that cloves became popular for the holidays because they used to fetch exorbitant prices. Christmas feasts made for a good excuse to splurge, so that could be why strongly spiced holiday foods like mince pies became popular in England and beyond from the 1700s onward.
And don’t forget, regular flavorful ingredients used to be scarce in winter, so spices came in pretty handy to spruce up Christmas dinner.
Make your home smell festive by adding some cloves to those cinnamon sticks I suggested you simmer on the stove in the previous paragraph. Or make a pomander as described in the section below on oranges!
Yep, we’re not done with spices yet! There are a bunch of different typical strongly scented spices that are perfect to make your home smell like Christmas, and nutmeg absolutely deserves a place on the list.
Eggnog! Cookies! Heck, I’m even guilty of adding a pinch of nutmeg to my morning coffee during the month of December.
The history of why nutmeg became a traditional Christmas spice is probably similar to that of cinnamon and cloves. In fact, nutmeg was among the most expensive of them all, and atrocities were committed over it and other Oriental spices.
Although it’s no longer considered a status symbol, the holiday tradition definitely stuck, so it’s no wonder we instinctively hear jingle bells in the back of our mind when we smell it.
Getting your home to smell like nutmeg is easy. Add it to that simmer pot full of spices, whip up some eggnog, or get a head start on those spiced Christmas cookies.
If you’re going to be combining different spices for an ultimate Christmas scent bomb, you can’t skip the ginger.
Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger thrown together make pumpkin spice, after all, everyone’s favorite spice mix to warm up during the gloomy days of fall through winter. If you add some allspice and a little bit of black pepper, you’ve got yourself a gingerbread spice mix.
Did you know that the concept of gingerbread has been around for hundreds (possibly even thousands) of years? Like many spices, ginger was appreciated for the positive effects it was (and still is) believed to have on the stomach. Additionally, it used to be used a religious symbol.
The tale of Hansel and Gretel, published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm, is often credited with the concept of the gingerbread house and making this treat a classic holiday staple.
If you want to make your home smell like ginger for Christmas, the obvious choice would be to bake some gingerbread. You can also go for the aforementioned simmer pot option or even prepare some homemade stem ginger by boiling the root in sugar syrup. Perfect if you like to give homemade culinary gifts!
Myrrh is the resin of trees of the genus Commiphora. Strongly scented, it has been in use by humans for a long time. It has proven medicinal uses and has historically been utilized for things like embalming bodies, as well as anointing and purification rituals. Oh, and it smells great!
The association between myrrh and Christmas probably comes from the fact that in the New Testament, it was described as being one of the gifts brought to Baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men. Not a surprising idea, given the value it already held as a medicine, incense, perfume, and much more.
After this, folks started gifting myrrh for Christmas, and now we can’t help but feel a little jolly when we smell it.
You won’t find pure myrrh resin for sale in many places, but it’s a popular essential oil nowadays. You can add some myrrh oil to an oil burner, go for myrrh-scented candles, or even make your own myrrh home mist for a lovely holiday smell in your house. Add some frankincense, another tree resin gifted by the Three Wise Men, to complete the Christmas scent profile!
Oranges (and clementines, the orange’s easy-to-peel little sister), are a Christmas staple. We receive oranges in our stockings to symbolize the gift of balls of gold from Saint Nicholas, we dry them to make Christmas ornaments, and we use plenty of ’em in our mulled wine and simmer pots.
As with some of the spices discussed, oranges may have come into fashion for the holidays because they used to be exotic and expensive if one didn’t live in the Mediterranean. Pair that with the facts that December is actually the start of orange season and these citrus fruits don’t spoil quickly, and you’ve got yourself an ideal Christmas treat.
I absolutely love the smell of oranges and clementines year-round. It’s amazing how this fruit’s scent can be both light and perfect for summer as well as cozy and wintery!
To make your home smell like oranges for Christmas, you could dehydrate some slices to DIY into tree ornaments and garlands, cook up a batch of orange-ginger marmalade, or even bring back the Renaissance tradition of making a pomander using oranges and cloves.
11. Hot chocolate
When I was little, my folks would start us kids off with a steaming stovetop hot chocolate on Christmas morning—with a pinch of cinnamon and copious amounts of whipped cream on top, of course. It may have had something to do with buying themselves extra time for last-minute gift organization, but it was such a highlight and has cemented hot chocolate in my mind forever as a holiday scent.
There are various ways to make your home smell like hot chocolate without actually making hot chocolate, including by using chocolate essential oil or scented candles. But come on… it’s Christmas! Create your own homemade hot chocolate mix and treat everyone to a steaming mug of chocolatey goodness for the best effect.
12. Mulled wine
Do we like the scent of mulled wine because wine makes us happy, or do we like mulled wine because the scent makes us happy? Probably both, not to mention it’s served steaming hot, which is exactly why this is the perfect holiday cocktail.
Also known as glühwein, which means “glowing” or “smoldering” wine in German, mulled wine is basically sangría’s cold-weather cousin.
Red wine is mixed with sugar, brandy, oranges, plus a bunch of warming spices, and then simmered (though never boiled) into a vibrant, warming concoction. It doesn’t just taste divine, but the scent of citrus, wine, and spices lingers in the home for hours!
By the way, if you’re not big on alcohol, you could always swap out the wine for cranberry and/or red grape juice. Same warming scent, same warming flavor, no headache tomorrow.
13. Wood fires
I know burning wood is not the best thing for the environment, but few things feel more hygge than hugging a mug of hot chocolate (or mulled wine) and watching the dancing flames. Combine this with the tradition of the yule log and it’s no wonder the smell of wood fires reminds so many of us of Christmas!
If you have a fireplace, I probably don’t have to tell you how to get the smell of a wood fire into your home, although I can recommend throwing some dried rosemary, cinnamon sticks, or dried oranges on the fire for an extra Christmassy scent. (You can even make herb and spice fire starters so you’re always ready to light up a cozy fire!)
Those of us who can’t light a fire in the living room, don’t worry. You can achieve a pretty good result with hickory incense, cedar wood oil, woodsmoke room sprays, or one of the many brands of “fireplace-scented” candles. If you like the crackling sound of a wood fire, try a wood-wick candle for the ultimate effect.
Seo, H. S., Buschhüter, D., & Hummel, T. (2009). Odor attributes change in relation to the time of the year. Cinnamon odor is more familiar and pleasant during Christmas season than summertime. Appetite, 53(2), 222-225.
View the Web Story on Christmas scents.