The Christmas of my childhood smelled of food. My parents, who were very modern, preferred the symmetry and convenience of an artificial fir tree. What we lost in pine scent, though, was more than made up for by the smell of wonderful holiday foods.
You could smell the gingerbread as soon as you walked into the house. Our Christmas tree was hung with dozens and dozens of homemade iced gingerbread men and Moravian spice cookies. Mom doubles spices as a rule, and these cookies, already packed with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, provided the dominant smell at the holidays.
Pomander balls date back to the Middle Ages, when folks carried spices in small bags to ward off infection or bad smells. In my house they date back to when my brother was in the Cub Scouts, and made one at Christmas. These are whole oranges studded with cloves, attached to a ribbon. My mother kept hers in her closet for the longest time; it dried out to a hollow shell and still retained the comforting smell of citrus and clove. See the instructions below.
Mom also made mince pie, a two-crust, small pie displayed on the buffet table in the dining room along with other treats in the days leading up to Christmas. It smelled spicy and tangy, of citrus and cinnamon.
In addition to helping with cookies, one of my holiday jobs was to prepare the stuffed dates. A few days before Christmas, I’d crack whole walnuts, carefully removing the nut and breaking it into quarters. The sticky-sweet, dried Medjool dates had a tunnel in the middle as a result of the pitting process. I’d stuff a quarter walnut piece into each mahogany date, molding the soft fruit around the nut, then roll them in granulated sugar. They smelled exotic, rich, like caramel and burnt sugar.
When I moved out on my own, I wanted my basement apartment in Albany to smell like Christmas. Mulling spices sold in small packets were popular then. I’d add the contents of the packet of spice mixture to a large bottle of cheap red wine in a medium pan and simmer it over low heat for 15 or 20 minutes. The more company I had, the bigger the bottle I bought. No one complained.
Williams-Sonoma sells a 5.75-ounce bottle of mulling spices for $12.95 on their website and in their store at Crossgates Mall. Or you can make your own, using whole versions of the spices in your cupboard. Penzey’s Spices has reopened in Stuyvesant Plaza, they have everything you’ll need. Check out the recipe below.
If you want good food smells without the work, check out Yankee Candles, which come in lots of holiday flavors, like Christmas Thyme, Holiday Sage and Christmas Cookie.
There’s also Cinnamon Stick, Mandarin Cranberry, Gingerbread Maple, Brandy Pear Tart and if you haven’t had enough of it, more pumpkin flavors than you can believe. That’s not all of them, check out the rest of the food and fruit lineup online at yankeecandle.com.
Don’t like having an open flame? They’ve got oils, diffusers and room sprays, all perfect for where a candle is not convenient. The Yankee Candle store in Crossgates is open during mall hours; check out www.shopcrossgates.com to see extended holiday hours.
1 tablespoon whole allspice
1 tablespoon whole cloves
3 cinnamon sticks
Zest of 1 orange (or orange peel)
2 (1/2-inch thick) slices peeled fresh ginger
Add spices to contents of a 1.5 liter bottle of red wine and warm on the stove over low heat.
Spiced Orange Pomander Ball
You’ll need: Several firm, fresh oranges A few toothpicks, or a nail A jar of whole cloves A citrus zester or vegetable peeler Ribbon, or string, for hanging.
Use the zester to make a few designs in the skin of an orange. Swirls are nice. A rubber band, wrapped around, will help guide you to make straight lines.
Poke a row of holes along the lines using a toothpick or nail, then push cloves into the holes.
To hang your pomander, thread a large needle with string and run it through the orange, make a knot at the bottom and a loop at the top. Or, you can tie ribbon around your pomander for display in a bowl.
You can roll your Pomander ball in ground spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg for even more holiday fragrance.