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Science & Technology

Scents Of The Season Speak Directly To Our Emotions

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The holidays can be hurried, harried and emotional, but hey - don't they smell great? Cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa. Bayberry, holly and spruce.

We asked a few random people around town what they think the holidays smell like.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pine, mainly. Well, Christmas trees, I guess. Peppermint. Candy canes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Cinnamon, apples, that kind of thing.

SIMON: Which often begins with...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My mother's cooking. Oh my, apple pie. Fried apple pies, apple cobbler, all of that. You know, even though I move from one area to another, it's still always the same.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The pine from the trees. My mother always had like - she always bought real trees. She didn't like fake trees.

SIMON: What makes holiday smells into such powerful memories? We asked Mandy Aftel. She's author of the book "Fragrant: The Secret Life Of Scent." She joined us from Berkeley, California and we asked her about frankincense and myrrh that's mentioned in the Bible.

MANDY AFTEL: Frankincense and myrrh are, you know, kind of rock stars of the holiday season. They smell something called resin-y, which is kind of a warm, sort of balsamic smell. And really good frankincense has a sort of citrus note to it. It's kind of bright and cheerful with a kind of warm, gummy sort of resinous note to it.

SIMON: Where would I smell it?

AFTEL: Well, in the Catholic Church I think you could smell it a lot.

SIMON: Oh, all right. So those of us who will be at holiday Mass will smell a lot of Frankincense?

AFTEL: You will. Those swinging censers in the church have - they're little gums, like little pellets. The frankincense is actually the lifeblood of the frankincense tree. And they basically rub the tree with, like, a putty knife and the frankincense comes out in these very kind of beautiful crystalline resinous forms, you know, little chunks.

SIMON: Well, what does smell do to our brains? Why do we connect with it so powerfully?

AFTEL: Well, smell is amazing and really amazing at the holidays. Smells can take you back like music, but even more potent, to experiences that you've had. And they're connected to an old part of the brain called the limbic system in the brain and they're connected to emotion and memory. I think they get embedded in there, in your brain, without you being able to kind of get on top of it with words, so it's just a sensual experience.

SIMON: What are some scents of the holidays that maybe we don't think about much as much as we would cinnamon, pine, gingerbread?

AFTEL: So cinnamon, nutmeg, clove - all those spices are connected to holiday desserts. I also think the other one you mentioned, which I would just say a tiny bit more about, fir and pine. A lot of those are connected to cocktails and to people having a kind of a woody smell and taste in things that they're also kind of drinking - gin and holiday drinks. So I think we're drinking and eating and smelling things over the holidays maybe more than we do other times, which is why scent is so connected to holidays.

SIMON: Candy cane has a real distinctive scent, doesn't it?

AFTEL: Candy cane is peppermint. It's kind of like peppermint with vanilla and sugar. Really good peppermint has this very sweet smell and taste to it. And peppermint - it's very interesting, when I was doing my research on peppermint and spearmint, peppermint is mostly for desserts and drink whereas spearmint can be used in all sorts of ways, in sweet and savory. So peppermint we really think of as those festive, festive occasions.

SIMON: We've obviously been talking about scents that are identified with Christmas, but the smell of latkes does it for a lot of people, too.

AFTEL: Yes. Well, you know, some of the smell is a smell of home, like the real home fragrance. I know there's a huge home-fragrance industry, but the real home fragrance is the smell of things cooking in your home.

SIMON: Yeah. We should explain, by the way, that latkes are essentially potato and onion pancakes and a signature of Hanukkah.

AFTEL: Yes, and I think they smell divine in that kind of deep, comforting kind of way that potatoes do and that onions become kind of a very sweet smell when they're cooking.

SIMON: Do you have a favorite scent this time of year?

AFTEL: So I love the smells of fir, from the fir trees. I've always liked fir anyways, it smells kind of warm and jam-my and it reminds me of the Christmas tree. I love persimmon pudding, so I love the smell of like, nutmeg and cinnamon and things like that cooking, along with kind of cream and hard sauce. I like all that a lot. I find it just very beautiful and very rich and very human, in such a way that it just always makes me feel very happy. And of course, I love the smell of chocolate, always.

SIMON: (Laughter). Mandy Aftel is the author of "Fragrant: The Secret Life Of Scent." Thanks very much for being with us, and good sniffing to you in the season ahead.

AFTEL: And you, too.

SIMON: Before we go, another bystander said that when it comes to the aromas of the season...

SUSAN STAMBERG: Well, I love the smell of mulled wine. So that's got to be a good, hearty red wine with cinnamon in it. You know, sticks of cinnamon, maybe some raisins, maybe some lemon, maybe some apple cider. But the other smell - I'm not so crazy about this - is the smell of an empty wallet after all the holiday shopping is done.

SIMON: Doesn't that lady sound a lot like Susan Stamberg?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHRISTMAS SONG")

NAT KING COLE: (Singing) Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Yuletide carols being sung by a choir and folks dressed up...

SIMON: Oh, Nat.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.