It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas (apologies to Perry Como and songwriter Meredith Willson), everywhere I go.
The scents of fresh Douglas fir and cinnamon never fail to bring smiles and sweet memories as I stroll through the mall or market. The first Christmas I can remember, and for the next dozen or so years, my mother bought a 5-foot tree from Ah Fook’s and decorated it with multicolored lights and a set of ceramic holiday figures: angels, elves, snowmen, and Santa and Mrs. Claus, who always got a place of honor near the star atop our modest tree.
Like our treasured ornaments, we used the same home decorations year after year. My favorite was a table centerpiece that featured a large red candle surrounded by holly leaves and pine cones. The holly was plastic, but the miniature pine cones were real. The best thing about the arrangement was the smell: cinnamon with a hint of apple. Even though we never lit the candle, its scent was strong enough to mingle perfectly with that of the Douglas fir.
The aromas of warm gingerbread, nutmeg-dusted eggnog, hot cocoa with peppermint overtones are as comforting as their tastes — perhaps even more so. That’s certainly true of fruitcake. I don’t enjoy eating it, but I love the smell of candied fruit simply for the memories of Christmases past.
At this time of year, even a walk through the produce department evokes childhood joys. The fruity air reminds me of Santa’s arrival at Kahului Shopping Center, where we kids would each receive a brown paper bag containing an apple, an orange, three or four nuts in the shell, and a couple of pieces of hard candy, usually stuck together.
Olfaction, the sense of smell, is directly connected to the areas of the brain that deal with emotion and memory. You probably don’t need scientists to tell you how powerful that association is; almost everyone can think of a specific scent that immediately triggers a certain memory, good or bad. The relationship between olfaction and emotions is even stronger. In fact, some researchers have concluded that kissing evolved from the primal act of sniffing a potential mate to decide if they were a match.
According to numerous studies, women have a better sense of smell than men, in terms of odor identification. One explanation put forth by scientists is that Mother Nature gifted us with superior scent detection to enable us to pick the best possible partners (as described above) and to protect and nurture our babies.
Apparently, women really can smell fear, as well as disgust. In a 2012 published study, researchers collected sweat from male participants as the men watched movies that prompted those feelings. Then, female participants were monitored during visual tests in which they unknowingly smelled the sweat samples. The women reacted to the subtle scents through facial expressions, with those smelling the “fear sweat” responding with wide-eyed, fearful looks, and those smelling the “disgust sweat” wrinkling their noses and showing other signs of disgust.
Scientists say that humans — even men — are capable of detecting over a trillion distinct odors. Seems like a high estimate, especially when you consider that dogs have more than 40 times the number of odor-detecting cells than we do. Assuming that the more smell cells one has, the greater one’s sensitivity to individual scents, it’s no wonder dogs look so confused most of the time. Can you imagine having a gazillion smells in your head, each spurring its own memory or emotion?
I’m happy with my half dozen or so seasonal favorites, although there’s one that I’ve missed for years, ever since Shirokiya closed its Queen Ka’ahumanu Center location. I long for the sweet, burnt-wood scent of roasting chestnuts, a holiday tradition at the department store. I remember my uncle taking me to watch the men stir the nuts in the giant roaster and shovel them into one-pound bags. They were so fresh, they’d still be warm when we opened them at home.
I hear the Ala Moana store roasts and sells chestnuts year-round now. Hmmm, I smell a Honolulu shopping excursion in the near future.
* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.