The science behind why the holiday season smells so good

Scent plays a powerful role in triggering memories and conjuring warm feelings of past holidays.

Monika Warzecha 4 minute read December 16, 2020
Christmas smells

Scent, memory and emotion are deeply intertwined. Getty

Amid the chill and dreariness of winter, the holidays are a feast for the senses: twinkly lights, big dinners, carols and cozy sweaters. But does anything evoke the season more sharply than certain smells? Pine and fir trees, gingerbread cookies, orange and clove, woodsmoke and that hard-to-describe smell of crisp, cold air and snow.

It’s quite the noseful. But there are a number of reasons why these smells might make you feel nostalgic. Here’s a look at some of the science behind why scents often associated with Christmas ooze comfort and joy.

The nose remembers

The olfactory system, or our sense of smell, is deeply intertwined with our memory. A sniff can trigger intense recall — those cinnamon cookies in the oven may be taking you back to Christmases past. Psychology Today spells out why: “The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus.” Because other sensory information, like touch, visuals and sounds, don’t travel through this exact part of the brain, scientists think this is why smell often trumps other senses is stirring up feelings and vivid memories.

In the book The Neurobiology of Olfaction, Anne-Marie Mouly and Regina Sullivan point to research that has shown “that odour-cued memories are more emotional than memories triggered by visual or verbal cues.” And so, if you associate warm feelings with your childhood Christmases, there’s a reason why a pine tree aroma might trigger pleasant flashbacks. The writers explain that most odour-cued memories go back to the first 10 years of our lives with “associative odour learning” starting very early on in our development.

Scientific American explains it further, noting that scents aren’t like drugs — they won’t necessarily spark a certain mood if you don’t already have an association with it. So if you have a bad association with the first time you had a whiff of something, it’s not likely to spark a cheerful feeling.

Into the woods

Even if you never grew up with a fresh Christmas tree in your own home, the fresh smell of pine may inspire a sense of well-being. What is it with evergreens?

Dr. Qing Li, an immunologiest with Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, wrote a whole book about forest bathing, the mindful practice of walking through woods and exploring it with your senses. Li suggests time spent in the woods can reduce your stress levels and blood pressure and strengthen your immune system. He’s researched phytoncides (wood essential oils) and the human body for years.

Bloomberg points out that “Li’s early work showed that walks in the woods boosted natural killer immune cells that helped fight infection and cancer; eventually, he came to suspect that it was the natural scents of evergreens and other trees that did the bulk of the work.” The research eventually spawned more work around the world looking into the connection between forests and health with the launch the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine in Tokyo as well as new programs at the the Finnish Forest Research Institute.

Cinnamon and peppermint

Some studies suggest that a couple of the odours that headline the holidays — cinnamon and peppermint in particular — may help calm us down. Dr. Bryan Raudenbush, an associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, has spent years looking at how these scents may impact mood. His research, eventually published in the North American Journal of Psychology, suggests that “drivers demonstrated decreased levels of frustration, anxiety and fatigue when exposed to peppermint and cinnamon scents” and were more alert than drivers who hadn’t been exposed to the two scents.

Perhaps if you’re feeling frustrated by your overbearing uncle or annoying in-laws over the holidays, it’s time to fire up that cinnamon-scented candle.

Monika Warzecha is a homepage editor at

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