Thursday, December 4, 2014

Christmas Trees and Memory:There's power in the smell

I stare at the corner of the living room and consider whether or not to put up a Christmas tree this year. The kids are grown and gone, my husband doesn’t care one way or the other, and I will be the one untangling lights and complaining about how they never work from year to year, even with all those guarantees that if “one-goes-out-all-stay-lit.”

I think about the times I’ve walked into a room and thought how silly it looked to see a tree all bedazzled there inside a house. But all it took was one whiff of that balsamy scent to transform that quirky conifer into a memory trove of times past:

There was the Christmas we forgot to cut the bottom off the tree before decorating it, so when our friends came over, we held it up—baubles and all— while Bob crawled under and sawed away.

And the Christmas in Guatemala when we stuck some branches in a jar and gathered round with our little Mayan friends.

Or the time my brother came home from the service and we lay under the tree and giggled and poked at packages like we had when we were kids.

Most of all, I remember my mom’s trees all draped with so much tinsel you could hardly see our plaster of Paris handprint ornaments. She wouldn’t let us throw the tinsel on the tree, but made us hang it piece by piece. We all walked around with glittery socks and sweaters for weeks. I can still feel that agony of anticipation, waiting to see what would be under that tree Christmas morning. I can still see my parents’ expressions of pleasure at our delight.

 “Let’s go get a tree,” I say to Bob.

We go to a nearby stand and I bury my head in the branches. “They don’t smell,” I say. “The trees at Whole Foods smell.” Bob has no comment. Whatever I want to do. Buy or wait.  Whole Foods is on the other side of town. I’m impatient. Maybe it will smell when we get home. We buy the tree. The attendant cuts the bottom for us, removing that sealed off portion that has allowed the tree to stop leaking and retain moisture in its needles.

After our yearly, brief discussion about fat colored lights (Bob) or a gazillion clear ones (me) Bob goes off on an errand. I string lights (clear) and deck out the tree. Sure enough. Fancy as it is in all its finery, even with a fresh cut bottom, my supposed-to-be-fragrant Fraser doesn’t smell. No aroma of forests and earth and Christmases past wafts around the room.

Too late, I realize something I’ve known intellectually. The emotional memories are in the scent. In fact, the association of smells with people, places and events is such a powerful way to release memories that caregivers are encouraged to stimulate people with dementia by having them smell memory- evoking scents. Conjure up for a moment—campfires, Coppertone, cookies in the oven and yes,

Christmas trees.

What are your special scent related memories? I’d love to hear them. Thanks for stopping by. I’m off to buy some tree oil or candles. Just hope they don’t smell like a pine cleaner that I associate with bus terminal bathrooms!

Blessings because you belong to a Living Hope!



  1. You can come smell our Christmas tree. It is from Whole Foods. :) And I'm with Bob on the lights!

  2. I love the scent of pine trees too, but I've got a fake tree now. It's a little thing that doesn't show off much, but it's there anyway with a few ornaments I've had since I was a little girl. It's enough for me, though I'll probably get some new ornaments this year. I hear they're 50% off at Hobby Lobby!

  3. Haha! Hope you didn't end up with a Pine-sol aroma!! i really miss the heavy sent of a real tree. We switched to fake a few years ago, to save money. My late MIL used to send us a fresh wreath each year after that to help make the house smell good! Today I am just depending on a few properly scented candles.

  4. This is the first year in many years we've not purchased a real tree due to construction going on in the house but Brian came home with a real pine and boxwood wreath yesterday. Once the dust settles from the drywall, I'm certain the balsam-y scent will emerge. OK, maybe certain is too, well, certain. But I'm hopeful! The scent of trees always take me back to my childhood and the aroma of food reminds me of my grandmothers. Who are the people in your photo? (I'm also with Bob on the lights - love fat bulbs!)


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