What are your favourite fragrances to wear this time of the year? Whether you celebrate Christmas, Yule, or nothing in particular, there might be certain scents that just seem right for the season and whatever you get up to. Nostalgia plays a big part for me (and, I’m sure, for many people) when picking out what to wear on Christmas Eve and on the days around it.
Although somewhat assimilated into British culture, I do still hold on to the Finnish custom of having the festive meal on the evening of the 24th, and handing out presents afterwards. In the past I’ve not always been lucky enough to get a long holiday over this period, but this year I have a luxurious two week break during which to see friends and family, and to have a cosy little Christmas in our new home.
I’m not religious, but I do very much admire the beautiful things that have come out of the human endeavours inspired by it (this is not the time of the year to focus on the ugly side); there is wonderful music, art and architecture which one can appreciate without the need to subscribe to the beliefs. Of course Christmas is one of those occasions when many atheists remind us that the holiday was hijacked in the first place, so non-religious people can relax and enjoy the celebration (and perhaps create their own traditions).
One of the things which I can’t get enough of is the smell of incense, or frankincense to be precise (we’re not talking about joss sticks here). It’s almost as though the pious meaning of my name is subconsciously asserting itself. Or maybe just because olibanum simply smells wonderful. Or maybe because it might really have some beneficial properties for the respiratory system. Who can say? Nevertheless, this is the time of the year I crave frankincense most, and the good kind; intoxicating, woody, bright, fruity. It happens to be one of the oils which seems to improve as it ages, so it’s good to smell several samples of it from different sources and of different age to appreciate it properly.
Amouage Gold Woman treats the incense note in a glorious way – my favourite framing of it in fine fragrance to date. I have been wearing it for four days running at the time of writing this, and having clouds of the expensive-smelling, ancient, gilded vapour wafting around you is the closest a human being can come to wearing a halo.
Which is why it can sometimes feels a little too precious, and so I take my heathen self to the perfume wardrobe for something wordly like Shalimar for a change. This would be my favourite vanilla fragrance, were it not for the strong association with my mother (of course that’s why I like it in the first place – but the association stops this from becoming MY perfume, and instead makes me feel like she is following me around in her best red lippie and high heels). I realise this is old news, but I must once again stress just how clever the accord is here; completely over-the-top vanilla, made inedible by the animalic edge, and the animalic edge made pretty by the vanilla.
In some ways I feel that Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle does to a saffron accord what Shalimar does to vanilla – in that a potentially sickly-sweet gourmand is piled as high as it will go; then defused by the addition of a perfect counterbalance, in this case, of dry, woody notes and a savoury, buttery sandalwood accord. DVN is a new addition to my Christmas season scent rotation, and it fits in perfectly. The starchy, overcooked rice note I so dislike in many saffron accords is also happily missing, and the drydown on my skin brings to mind milk chocolate, rice pudding and precious woods.
Shiseido’s Feminite du Bois has been a favourite of mine for years, and I am torn between tearing through the rest of the juice and wishing to preserve it. Its ginger-cloves-cinnamon-cardamom mix sounds heavy on paper, but is made transparent and almost fizzy (with that inevitable cola-aspect that appears when you blend certain spices and fruity notes). There is a hint of gingerbread, too. If I had to pick THE perfect scent for the season, this might be it; managing to reference so many seasonal aromas, yet being so uplifting, refreshing and elegant, rather than stuffy and overwhelming. In some ways, it is the winter mirror to my summer love, Annick Goutal’s Mandragore.
Dzongkha once again features frankincense, but this time it is wrapped in an iris-leather accord and spiced up, so the impression flip-flops between a spice cupboard, single malt whisky and celery. It isn’t the easiest of scents to wear, but when the days get cold and dark, and we begin to wind down (and, in some cases, sip single malt whisky), this is the perfect companion. I wore this to a whisky tasting session with Iain Banks, but the scent has found itself to my Christmas rotation, too, and fits there perfectly.
The hardest scent for me to wear is Y by YSL (which, until a few years ago had not suffered from reformulations, if any, though I hear has now been changed. My bottle is approximately seven years old). It was the closest my mother had to a signature scent. She wore this for many years almost exclusively, and I have very strong memories of her wafting in from freezing cold temperatures, bringing with her the green floral chypre sillage, along with a trail of sub-zero air. For some reason the scent is particularly fixed to Christmas; perhaps because when I was very little, I would be shipped off to her parent’s house for a few days before she would follow, and getting the frozen waft of Y through the door before she appeared has been forever etched to my memory. This does smell glorious in cold weather, and has that 60s/70s galbanum-cyclamen-hyacinth-aldehyde-soapy thing going on, with a gorgeous dry chypre base. If I am feeling brave, I wear it on Christmas Eve, so it is like having her there with me, even though she died in 2001.
This year we have also bought a real Christmas tree, though I now realise, a little too soon (it is a Norway spruce – the tree traditionally brought indoors a day or two before Christmas in Finland; ours has been here for two weeks and is starting to drop its needles. Oops). The smell of this tree is the ‘correct’ Christmas tree smell for me, and adds to the festive feeling.
If you are interested in chemistry, or fragrance chemistry, or both, do follow Compound Interest who frequently post nifty infographics such as this: