The smell of baking gingerbread cookies, the scent of the fresh pine Christmas tree, the welcome warmth and aroma of an open fire, or a whiff of the sweet, hot spiciness of cinnamon give rise to some of the scents of the holiday season. Our memories are deeply infused with the smells swirling all around us during this magical time of year and are attached to the holiday traditions that we celebrate. Holiday fragrances make us feel warm and cozy and in a festive mood.

The smells that we enjoy the most in our home are the ones that recall favorite memories of past holidays. What scents of the Christmas season evoke the spirit of the holiday for you? What memories come to mind when you smell the roasting turkey, the fragrance of peppermint, or the allspice aroma of pumpkin pie?

You might deem it peculiar that scent evokes memories. However, everyone has experienced this phenomenon where a smell reminded them of an experience. Research shows that odors are essential to how we remember things.

During the late 19th century, Marcel Proust, a French writer, included a scene in his seven-volume series titled In Search of Lost Time. A famous scene from the book describes the taste and smell of madeleines, petite sponge cake. This aroma evokes a long-forgotten childhood memory and begins the novel’s story. The depiction of memories and how sights, sounds, and scents trigger them captivated the imagination of psychologists who termed this as “the Proust Effect.” Later, a scientific scholar, Cretien van Campen, defined the Proust effect as “an involuntary, sensory-induced, vivid and emotional reliving of events from the past.”

A scent is a chemical particle that floats through the nose and into the brain’s olfactory bulbs. Scent particles can trigger powerful memories, especially emotional ones. Brain cells then carry that information to a tiny area of the brain called the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and then to the adjoining hippocampus, where learning and memory formation occur. Our long-term memory stores the odors we smell along with associated details such as emotions, people, locations, plants, and animals. Smelling such odors again will trigger the recollection of that situation.

Scents are the only sensations that travel a direct path to the emotional and memory centers of the brain. That results in an intimate connection between emotions, memories, and scents. Memories triggered by scents are “experienced as more emotional and more evocative,” said Rachel Herz, author of the book The Scent of Desire (Harper Perennial, 2018).

The feelings that holiday scents inspire have special meaning to us because of our associations with them. The smell of pine needles or the fragrant aroma of cinnamon cookies is not intrinsically pleasant, but joyful memories are recalled because of our past personal connections.

The scents of the holiday season take many of us back to cherished moments in our childhood, but only if we have a history with that scent, and a scent can only transport us to our own past.

The scents of Christmas are a vital part of what makes the season merry and bright. Have a happy, peaceful, and aromatic holiday season!

Nancy J. Schaaf is a retired English/literature educator and also a retired nurse.

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