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Smell, memory and Christmas

One whiff of anise seed transports me back to childhood Christmases in a little Iowa farmhouse…

Photo by Anna Peipina on Unsplash

Every Christmas, my late grandmother made peppernut cookies, (or pfeffernüsse, as she called them). Crunchy little morsels filled with warming spices, these cookies represented her family’s German roots. In a labor of love, Grandma created and then divided a lump of peppernut dough into several pieces and rolled out each by hand. She cut “nut” sized bites by wrapping a strand of dental floss around the ends of each long, thin tube of dough and by pulling tight. She baked cookie sheet after cookie sheet filled with the small, peppernut cookies, flooding their Iowa farmhouse full of cozy and comforting spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves.

But it was the sweet fragrance of anise seed that defined Grandma’s cookies the most. I remember she would pull out her small, wooden coffee grinder with the little drawer for the coffee beans and the hand crank on top. Around and around, she turned the rickety, little handle and crushed whole anise seeds into freshly ground dust. That distinct black licorice fragrance wafted up and over her kitchen, settling down to stay awhile. Like an old friend, the smell of freshly ground anise announced it was almost Christmastime. Grandma made her cookies well before Christmas and there were always enough to last through New Year’s Day. A batch of Grandma’s peppernuts was always on the table to share, and the sweet smell of anise seed would serenade us all the way through the holiday season.

Now I live thousands of miles away from that remote 80-acre farm. My grandparent’s farmhouse is no longer standing, and my grandparents have both been gone for a while now too. Still, one good whiff of anise seed effortlessly winds back the clock and transports me across the country back to the Iowa Christmases of my childhood.

Why is it that certain scents awaken our past? What is it about the nose on our face that is so powerful?

It turns out that smell, memories, and emotions are all registered in a part of the brain very closely connected. As the LiveScience blog explains, “Scents are the only sensations that travel such a direct path to the emotional and memory centers of the brain.” This explains why memories triggered by our sense of smell can cause us to re-experience our past so vividly.

I made peppernut cookies last Christmas and I remembering a tender nostalgia in my heart as I mixed the anise into the dough. Isn’t it funny to feel such a strong, emotional connection to a smell?

Even in the ancient world, humans believed the nose was closely connected to our passions. In biblical Hebrew, the word meaning “nose” is derived from a root verb meaning “to be angry.” The ancient Israelites’ expression for when someone became angry quite literally meant in biblical Hebrew having “hot nostrils” or a “hot nose!” The sense of smell was so viscerally powerful, it could change minds. Even God’s mind.

After the great flood, Noah presented God a sacrifice of “every clean animal and of every clean bird” (Gen. 8:20). According to the biblical story, “when God smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground … Nor will I ever again destroy every living creature’” (Gen. 8:21). God enjoyed the smell of Noah’s burnt offering so much that God was moved, and God vowed to never again flood the earth.

In the ancient world, it was believed that the nose not only connects us to our emotions — but also to life itself. Skilled craftsmen of ancient Egypt deliberately vandalized the statues of deities by knocking off their noses. They targeted the likeness of specific deities and either scratched out or removed their noses to obliterate the statute’s power. Then, it was believed that the goddess Nefertiti, for example, would no longer be able to possess a statue of her likeness and terrorize a nearby village. With her nose gone, Nefertiti wouldn’t be able to breathe!

Of course, it is also important to note that in the biblical story of creation, God doesn’t breathe into Adam’s mouth; God breathes into Adam’s nostrils. The breath of life given to us by God animates and stirs in us through our nose! Breathing in and breathing out, we are one with God and with the sacred life of every being on this earth.

There is something truly special about the nose, about the inherent significance of inhaling and exhaling the world we experience all around us. It’s especially striking to me how human beings always seem to have had some understanding of the power of the nose, millennia before we had any notion of the direct neurological connection between our sense of smell and the other parts of our brain. Our nose awakens dormant memories and connects our past to our present. It’s such a powerful phenomenon. A whiff of steaming apple pie, or a hint of chlorine from a pool reconnects us with ourselves, with some dormant piece of our life story so that we can feel and live it, here and now.

Each year, by God’s grace, the smells of the holiday season take us on a journey: a journey of smiles and tears, of friends and family, of many years and miles away…