In The Most Wonderful Smelling Time of the Year biologist David George Haskell explains why the scent from Christmas trees makes for a primal experience to revel in. Indeed, I’ve found that reading it has heightened my experience of wandering through fragrant canyons of Christmas trees for sale everywhere:

Walking in New York this season, I stumble into a time warp. The smell of fir from sidewalk Christmas tree vendors plunges me into memories [from childhood]…. This portal into the past is opened by odor alone, by the fir needles perfuming whole city blocks.

This inward journey into human remembrance is mirrored by an outward connection to the lives of trees and forests. The chemical conversation between cells and air- and waterborne aromatic molecules unites all living beings, from animal noses to plant root tips to the cell surfaces of bacteria. The scents of holiday trees evoke primal experience.

Midwinter tree aromas connect us not only to memory but also to the language of trees. Every tree lives in connection with thousands of other species — bacteria, fungi, insects, other plants — and aromas are the links that hold together this community. Plant leaves use odoriferous molecules to defend themselves from insects and fungi, to cope with heat stress, to listen to the health of other plants and to summon parasitic insects to devour leaf-eating pests. Fruits use aromatic oils and alcohols to deter the growth of bacteria and attract seed-dispersing frugivorous animals. The unique aroma of each plant species results from a blend of thousands of molecules, an olfactory manifestation of the diverse chemical ecologies of trees.

Soil and air are wrapped into these aromatic connections…


Haskell reminds us that enjoying the sensory experience of trees and their products in seasonal rituals (think roasting chestnuts and Chanukah olive oil) helps heal our broken connection to Nature and increase well-being. It’s one of the big, free gifts of the holidays, available for just a few days more.

Sally Schneider


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