Q: So here’s the deal: I love holiday-scented candles and sprays. Pine, peppermint, eggnog, cinnamon, gingerbread … you name it, from the end of November until the beginning of January, my nose craves it. However, my tradition must come to an end this year because I have a new housemate with chemical sensitivities. Don’t get me wrong; she’s super festive (she started listening to Wham’s “Last Christmas” in mid-October) but all those artificial scents will have to go. From what I understand, natural holiday fragrances (i.e. those not originating from a can or paraffin candle) should be OK but I’ve been so reliant on mass-produced seasonal scents for so long that I don’t know where to start. Have any thoughts?
A: Well, it sounds like change — not the smell of Christmas Cupcake intermixing with Balsam and Cedar — is in the air. And don’t get me wrong, I do like myself a Christmas-y scented candle now and then (if you weren’t in your current situation, I’d tell you to check out the hand-poured offerings from Aunt Sadie’s), but your housemate and her chemical sensitivities may be a blessing in disguise. Like it or not, by burning those delightful candles and spraying those tantalizing sprays, you’re drastically lowering the indoor air quality of your home. From the dubious ingredients that they’re made from to the effects that they can have on your health, they’re just one big eco no-no. Soy-based candles scented with essential oils are a much better option but not nearly as fun (and cost effective) as going the DIY route and creating your own yuletide odors. Here are a couple of ideas:
While we’re on the topic of housemates and smells, I once had a mercifully short-lived roommate whom I not-so-endearingly nicknamed “Pigpen.” Long story short, he reeked. In fact, his entire room smelled and since we’re talking New York City rentals here, the entire two-bedroom apartment began to stink. It was an awful situation and I came pretty close to leaving out $5 in quarters and a note suggesting that he try discovering the wonderful world of washing machines. But I didn’t. Instead, I simmered stuff on the stove. Not exactly the most energy-efficient route but it did mask the Pigpen stank (open windows in the dead of winter also helped with the smell but not my gas bills). I’d also like to think that my stovetop simmering had magical qualities that made him move out.
In that particularly harrowing instance, I went the basic cloves route since I happened to have a lot on hand. However, with holiday simmer pot recipes you can feel free to get creative and attempt to mimic those candle and spray scents that you love so much.
Just fill a pot of water about half-full, bring to a boil, throw in your favorite herbs, spices and fruity leftovers like orange rinds and apple peels, and then let simmer. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy some non-artificial aromatic bliss. Since we’re talking holidays here, whole cloves and cinnamon sticks along with allspice, vanilla and nutmeg are the obvious choices but there’s really no rule of thumb as to what works and what doesn’t. I’d also consider buying any dried/whole spices in bulk so you have as much or as little as you need on hand. In addition to being more cost-effective, there’s something so inherently cozy and so inviting — and so darn grandmotherly — about simmering your holiday scents. Added bonus: If the air in your apartment is drying out your skin, all that boiling/simmering will also help to naturally humidify your pad.
Pomanders and pinecones
You can go totally wild with DIY pomander balls, a really old school method of warding off nasty smells and infection, but the classic holiday variation of creating your own pomme d'ambre is to simply stud a few oranges with whole cloves, rub them in a spice mixture (usually nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger along with sandalwood oil as a preservative) and then place in a bowl on your kitchen countertop or other surface for festive decorative appeal. Or, try tying ribbons around your balls and hang them about your home for extra aesthetic oomph. And although oranges are the holiday pomander standard, lemons, limes and apples also work wonders. When I make my own pomanders, I keep them out in a cool, dry place during the holidays and then, once they’re nice and dried (placing them in a paper bag speeds this along) transfer them to my closet and drawers since they last a long while.
In addition to pomanders, why not place out a bowl of pinecones that have been sprayed lightly with a mixture of water and a few drops of essential oil, usually cinnamon although anything will do. You can buy scented pinecones but the DIY route is cheaper and provides for a fun project. Just remember that if you procure the pinecones yourself, wash them well and then bake them for about an hour at 200 degrees to dry out the sap and kill any bugs before applying the fragrance mixture. Another method is to apply glue to the pinecones and then rub them in a spice mixture. The folks over at McCormick have a solid tutorial on how to do this with some very important nutritional information: Do not eat.
A Christmas tree
An obvious one with little explanation needed (and yes, I’m talking about a live tree … do they even make scented PVC trees?). If you don’t have the room to accommodate a fir tree in your living room, opt for fragrant, fresh-cut garlands, swags and/or wreaths. I’m a traditional balsam fir guy myself but garlands and wreaths come in all varieties … not as many varieties as those candles and sprays that you love so much but I think you, and your roommate, will be happy with the au natural results. Happy seasonal scenting!