The history of festive fragrance


Florence Robson

Festive candle with dried orange slices | True Grace

The warming sweetness of mulled wine. Smoke curling from chimneys in the cold winter air. Spiced gingerbread baking in the oven. The Christmas season is rich with fresh, spicy and woody fragrances, all of which bring comfort and a healthy dose of nostalgia. From brushing pine needles off wrapping paper to studding oranges with cloves and hanging them around the house, our festive memories are intertwined with particular scents.

But how did these smells become inextricably linked with Christmas? Let’s take a look at the history of some of the most notable festive fragrances.

Spiced oranges

This fruity, spicy scent combination is as traditional as they come, tracing back to the pomander balls of the Middle Ages. These clove-studded oranges were worn around the neck or placed in the home, with the intention of guarding oneself from negative spirits and energies, as well as to protect against disease. This tradition carried on for centuries, with notable figures including Cardinal Wolsey said to have carried pomanders to cover up unpleasant smells in their surroundings. Later, citrus fruits – which were once luxury items in Europe – were often given as gifts during the holiday season.

We have the Victorians to thank for associating pomanders with Christmas. They would hang the decorated oranges from Christmas trees, along with ribbons and candles, creating a colourful and fragrant display.

Mulled wine

Mulled wine has been enjoyed as a winter warmer for centuries. The Romans believed it would defend their bodies against the cold, while mediaeval Europeans  would often serve mulled wine at feasts and celebrations. 

The delicious aroma is less about the wine and more about the spices added to it: traditionally mulled wine is made with warming spices such as cinnamon sticks, star anise, cloves, cardamom pods, black peppercorns and allspice berries, as well as orange peel and perhaps a dash of brandy or port. Cinnamon, in particular, is a critical ingredient in mulled wine and has been used in cooking and medicine for thousands of years. Rich in polyphenols, cinnamon has long been used to reduce inflammation and boost the immune system during the winter months.


Gingerbread houses have become a staple Christmas tradition and a wonderful family activity to keep the household occupied in the run-up to Christmas day or the leisurely gap between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. As with many Christmas traditions, it has a long and winding history. 

Gingerbread is a mixture of molasses (or golden syrup) and spices like ginger, cloves and cinnamon. The first recorded gingerbread recipe dates from around 2,400 BC in ancient Greece and the sweet treat can be traced throughout the centuries, from a 15th century gingerbread guild in Germany to Swedish nuns baking it to ease indigestion. We’ve got the Brothers Grimm to thank for popularising gingerbread houses in the early 1800s when they published Hansel and Gretal. In the story, the witch’s house is described as being “built of bread, and roofed of cakes, and the window was of transparent sugar.” In later versions, bread was changed to gingerbread and the story inspired German bakers to begin crafting decorated houses from lebkuchen (spiced honey biscuits).

Frankincense and myrrh

For those of us who participated in nativity plays (or have watched our own children act out the familiar tale), frankincense and myrrh are most closely associated with the three wise men from the East who brought gifts to the newborn baby Jesus. While you may not have come across either of these ancient oils in your day-to-day life, both frankincense and myrrh are still prized within the world of aromatherapy, are popular skincare ingredients and often show up in scented candles. Both oils are still an essential part of Christmas traditions and are often used in religious ceremonies and rituals.

Both frankincense and myrrh originate from the Middle East and Africa. Frankincense oil has a soft, warm and earthy aroma. It was once considered a pathway between the earthly and divine worlds and is still used to promote inner peace and calm. Myrrh, on the other hand, is woody, spicy and slightly bitter. Throughout history it has been used in a number of medicinal and cosmetic practices, from antifungal treatments to embalming mummies!


There’s nothing like the soothing scent of a real pine Christmas tree to make you feel festive. However, while using the natural world to decorate your home has been a custom for thousands of years, the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree is more modern, dating back to the 16th century in Germany. 

Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, is usually credited with having introduced the Christmas tree to the English people. However, history tells us that George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte (who, like Albert, was German), actually set up the first known Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in 1800. Christmas trees quickly became popular with the upper classes, who would decorate them with ornaments, illuminate them with candles and surround the tree with presents – much as we do today.

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