The Smells of Christmas and Third Third Flourishing

By Mark D. Roberts

November 18, 2021

De Pree Journal

One of the very best things about Christmas is the smells. Yes, it’s wonderful to celebrate the birth of Jesus. That’s the main thing. And it’s great to get together with family and friends to celebrate. That’s the second main thing. Besides these, I love Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, Christmas lights, Christmas presents, Christmas music, Christmas stories, Christmas parties, Christmas ties, and, well, you name it. But one of my very favorite things about Christmas is the smells.

I love the smell of:

  • Christmas cookies, baking turkeys, and pumpkin pie.
  • Smoke from a crackling fire in a neighbor’s fireplace.
  • Gingerbread houses assembled by children’s sticky fingers.
  • Holiday scented candles burning on the mantle.

But, most of all, I LOVE the smell of fresh Christmas trees.

That’s one of my earliest memories, actually. I think I was about four years old when my parents took me to a Christmas tree lot. As they searched for the “perfect” tree, I roamed about the lot, pretending I was in a mountain forest. I remember crawling between close-together trees, savoring the smell of what I later learned were Douglas and Noble firs.

When my parents brought a tree home and decorated it, soon our living room was filled with the unforgettable smell of a fresh tree. I delighted in the appearance of our well-lit and lavishly decorated tree. But, most of all, I loved its smell.

I still do love that smell. But now, it’s not only a present-day delight for me. When I first visit my local Christmas tree lot, care of Home Depot, I’m transported back to that magic moment in my boyhood. I can close my eyes are remember the look, feel, and mostly the smell of my first Christmas-tree-lot experience. For brief moments, I’m once again a four-year-old boy enchanted by the tantalizing scent of freshly-cut firs.

I entitled this article “The Smells of Christmas and Third Third Flourishing.” No doubt you’ve got “The Smells of Christmas” theme. But you may be wondering about “Third Third Flourishing.” There actually is a strong connection between the two. Allow me to explain.

In my research into the physical and mental health of older adults, I was surprised to discover that remembering our past contributes substantially to the well-being of our brains. This is something about which there is quite a bit of academic research, much of it done by members of the Nostalgia Group at the University of Southampton in England. To put it simply, they’ve found that when people enjoy nostalgic memories from their past, this has a surprisingly positive effect on the brain. Here’s what they say on the home page of their website: “Importantly, nostalgia, once evoked, re-establishes psychological equanimity. It elevates mood, self-esteem, and a sense of social connectedness; it fosters perceptions of continuity between past and present; it increases meaning in life; and it “fights off” death cognitions. Finally, nostalgia has motivational consequences, as it facilitates approach-oriented (e.g., prosocial) behaviour.” Other research adds to the list of the benefits of nostalgia.

So, when I smell Christmas trees and remember my youthful experience in a Christmas tree lot, this is good for my brain. But there’s something even more powerful going on than the usual processes of memory.

When you see photos from your childhood, or when you read something related to your past, or when you hear music from your youth, these things activate your memory. You can feel nostalgic, that bittersweet feeling of happy memories from a time that is past and can’t return. But, brain research shows that if you smell something from your past, your memories will be much more powerful. Smell activates memory in a uniquely strong way.

A recent online article summarized the findings of a technical study published in Progress in Neurobiology. This article, bearing the title, “New Research Explains Why Scent Triggers Such Powerful Memories,” explains in non-technical language why there is such a strong connection between smell and memory. In a nutshell, this connection “comes from the connection between the olfactory system and the hippocampus in the brain.” When you smell something from your past, that information is rushed to the limbic system, and you have immediate and powerful memories, more so than what you’d get from other senses. Lead researcher for the academic study, Dr. Christina Zelano, comments, “It is our oldest sensory system, evolutionarily speaking, and the one located deepest in our brains. . . .

It is a complex system, with many parallel paths delivering odor information simultaneously to many brain areas milliseconds after we sniff. . . . This powerful sensory system is critical to our human experience. Yet it is perhaps the most poorly understood system compared to other human sensory systems.” (If you want to read more about the connection between smell and nostalgia, check out “Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding” by Alan R. Hirsch.)

Now you see the connection between Christmas smells and third third flourishing:

  1. Christmas smells evoke nostalgic memories of past Christmases.
  2. Nostalgia help brains be healthier as we get older.
  3. So Christmas smells contribute to third third flourishing.

Of course, you don’t need to know any of this to get the benefit of nostalgic smelling. But if you do know how smells might affect your brain, then you may give yourself more freedom to enjoy them. If a certain Christmas smell stirs up memories, go ahead and savor them. Let them fill your mind and heart. Doing so, it turns out, may make your cognitive ability just a little stronger.

Plus, letting beloved scents take you back in time is just plain fun.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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