Tania Sanchez: Fight germs: eat mince pies

In the month leading up to the 25th of December, a woman who lived the first half of her life in tropical Saigon – and who happens to be my mother – will drag a purchased fir tree into her cosy California home, where winter weather means a millimetre of morning frost on the windows that disappears by 9am.

With that alpine fragrance bracing her spirit, she will fill the house with smells of clove and cooking sugar, and bake enough gingerbread to construct a vast edible metropolis, its masonry mortared with white frosting and inhabited by two-dimensional biscuit men, whose homes she will buttress with red-and-white peppermint canes and bejewel with gummy fruits.

She will fumigate the bathrooms with the hissing spittle of some red-topped limited-edition aerosol can covered in pictures of holly, which will reek of cinnamon, apple, and evergreen forest, or worse, an eggnog sludge of synthetic vanilla and nutmeg, or maybe that wonderful fruity-clove-menthol thing they call bayberry when they're not calling it wax myrtle. It is the soul of Christmas, the one odour that belongs solely to Christmas, not because of anything to do with Christ, but because they make candles out of the berries' wax, and Christmas is about candles. That is because at Christmas, every Christianised household, regardless of climate and technological progress, becomes medieval Germany in deepest winter. Below the equator, Argentinian households enjoying the roasting glare of summer watch their living-room pines, exhausted after their long descent from the Andes, helplessly, leprously shed their luxuriant needles by the armful. Children in swimsuits tweak bells attached to artificial mistletoe. Plastic reindeer go soft in the noon sun. For a month the house must be made to breathe the air of a Saxon winter, brought by Spanish missionaries.

These peculiar scents, so season-specific that many candles fragranced with some permutation of evergreen, fruit and spice are merely labelled "Christmas" with no further explanation, make up a standard suite of sensations with origins all over Europe, but crystallised into their current, apparently unalterable fossilised form in the romantic 19th century, when German Prince Albert set his Tannenbaum up in England, and on both sides of the Atlantic, everyone who was anyone set out with a hatchet for a vital bit of holiday décor.

These pagan pongs of puddings and pines are naturally nothing to do with the precious perfume resins – frankincense and myrrh – given to the infant Christ by the Oriental kings, who had different ideas of what to give a baby than we do. Now the standard conical Christmas tree, scaled to a normal ceiling, is perhaps the largest home fragrance diffuser in existence. Its hale, stirring odour not only smells clean, it is cleansing, since pine oil is a powerful bacteriostatic, good for the tree fending off micro-invaders, and good for the household detergents that include it.

In fact, as we look harder at what seemed the traditional smells of Christmas, their affinity for each other begins to seem not so arbitrary at all. A secret something links the aromatic riches of the table with the greenery festooning the room: an invisible and constant battle against germs. As my mother dances through the halls blasting cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, plum and caramel through every doorway, as if to run off some invisible devil with a hatred for pastry, she has no idea she is scenting the place like one gigantic mincemeat pie or Christmas pudding, for she has never seen a Christmas pudding and wouldn't know whether to eat it or shoot it if she did.

These dense, dark cannonballs of long-cooked sugar and treacle, dried fruit and spice didn't start life as holiday sweets. The word mincemeat reveals all: these dishes have their origin in the preservation of meat in the days before refrigeration, say the 15th century, when animals slaughtered in autumn were macerated in this archaic chutney, made hostile to bacteria with an enormous dose of sugar and salt, stuffed with currants and plums, spiced, and left to hang in mummified glory, to nourish people through the long starved winter. Those delicious mulling spices are death to bacteria: for instance, the molecule known as eugenol, the main component of clove oil, and the molecule cinnamaldehyde, ditto in cinnamon, are both enthusiastic enemies of nasty bacteria such as listeria, staph and e.coli. And what bacteria hate, we love instinctively; we have kept the spice and sugar and now we put the meat in the fridge.

'Perfumes: the Guide', by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, is published by Profile

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate