The Scents of the Season


Christmas is in the air. I mean this quite literally. We know it’s Christmas because of the distinctive scents of the season. Whether it’s the fragrance of the pine boughs brought indoors or the odors of steaming hot chocolate, gingerbread cookies, and cinnamon rolls wafting through the house—our noses know. It’s Christmas.

This is just as it should be for reasons both scientific and theological. First, the science. Human beings have remarkable palates and noses. Our 10,000 taste buds and 400 different types of scent receptors enable us to detect an almost infinite variety of tastes and smells. It’s impossible to separate scent from taste. When we say we “taste” something, we’re mostly reporting on what our noses are telling us. Anyone who has lost their sense of taste because of a bad cold (or worse, COVID-19), knows that taste and smell are intertwined. We may not match what the bloodhound can do, but we’re still very good at it.

We have an amazing talent for connecting smells with memory and emotion. When those aromatic holiday molecules envelop me, I am transported to the Christmases of my childhood—to the scenes at grandmother Berry’s breakfast table and Mom’s culinary alchemy which turned simple ingredients into a feast for kings. Anyone lucky enough to have been raised in a home where Christmas was celebrated knows this: when the flavors of the season flood our adult senses, our hearts teem with the emotion-laden memories of childhood.

There’s also the theology of taste and smell. At the center of the Incarnation is a deep mystery—namely, that the material and the spiritual are not enemies, but friends. In Scripture, fragrance and taste are often linked to memory, faith, and spiritual observance: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Throughout the ancient near East aromatic substances were employed in religious rites. Food is a big deal in the Bible where, surprisingly, the verb “to eat” appears more often than the verb “to believe”! Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, once noted that all “food talk” in the Bible is really “God talk.” Fragrances are everywhere in the Bible. Myrrh, aloes, cassia are holy aromas. Fragrant oils were used to anoint kings and priests. The Song of Solomon is a feast of olfaction (“beds of spices,” the fragrances of wine and mandrakes and nard).

When we come to the Christmas story, we should not be surprised to find that fragrances figure in the plot. Two of the three gifts of the Wise Men—myrrh and frankincense—are aromatic spices used as perfumes, incense, and medicines. Ever since, vibrant smells have been central to the feast of Christmas. God’s coming into the world should remind us that the Lord of the Incarnation, the Master of sights and sounds, the Creator of light, color, form, and music is also the Lord of taste and smell. It is no small thing that we enjoy the capacity to detect a million different fragrances.

Some believe that “salvation” is all about escape from an evil material world, but the Christmas story challenges that view. God first pronounced physical things “good” and “very good” in the story of Creation in Genesis. In the New Testament, God reiterates the original point by giving us Christmas, which is, after all, about Incarnation—God coming to earth in the flesh. Historian Robert Louis Wilken reminds us, “Christianity is an affair of things. At the center of Christian worship is a material, palpable, thing, the consecrated bread and wine, through water one is joined to the church, and through things, the Holy Cross, the rock of Calvary, the sacred tomb, God accomplished the salvation of the world” (emphasis added). In short, Christmas reminds us that the “material” and the “spiritual” are not essentially opposed. Olfaction and taste are reminders of this truth. When odor molecules (very material things indeed) strike our noses’ olfactory receptors, these tiny particles can arouse holy memories and spiritual awareness. As the Wise Men demonstrate, a simple, fragrant “material” gift can become an enduring spiritual treasure. 

The story of the Wise Men illustrates why there is no tidy separation of the sacred from the secular. In this season we would do well to remember what St. Paul teaches: any gift can become a holy offering. In his letter to the Philippians the Apostle concludes with a tender, farewell thank-you note: “I am quite content, thanks to your gifts …. Your generosity is like a lovely fragrance, a sacrifice that pleases the very heart of God” (Phil. 4:8, Phillips trans).

So it is when we drop a dollar in the little red bucket in front of the supermarket, when we feed a hungry body at Breakfast on Beech Street, when we help with the Christmas toy drive. We are reenacting the fragrant gift-giving of the Magi. According to the Apostle, when we do this, we not only perform the role of the giver. Even more striking, we become the gift, “the aroma of Christ to God” (2 Cor. 2:15).

Darryl Tippens is retired University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University


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