I have a friend, a serious and somber businessman, who keeps a bowl of Red Bird peppermint puffs at the reception desk of his office in December.
Every year, right after Thanksgiving, he makes a special trip from Charlotte to the Piedmont Candy Company in Lexington.
Partly, he goes to buy a month’s supply of those melt-in-your-mouth peppermint puffs at The Candy Factory store on Main Street. But the real reason he goes is the smell that wafts from the candy factory a few blocks away.
Until he sniffs that aroma of hot sugar and peppermint, he says, it just hasn’t become Christmas for him.
Scientists tell us that smell is the sense that’s most connected to memory. It isn’t just the sight of blinking lights on houses, or pressing silver dragées into the eye of cut-out camel cookies. It isn’t only the sound of brightly colored Christmas card envelopes dropping through the mail slot or the annual playing of “The Nutcracker Suite.”
All of those things may be a part of Christmas, but they aren’t what really lights up our brains.
It’s the smell: We sniff, therefore it is.
I’ve always thought you should keep chocolate for Valentine’s Day and Easter. Christmas is the smell of confectioners’ sugar icing setting up on freshly baked cookies, and mulled cider steaming at holiday parties. It’s the grated coconut for whichever form of ambrosia your family makes, and the hint of tangerine skin and walnut shells that clings to the toes of Christmas stockings when you unpack the decorations.
North Carolina is filled with the smells that make it Christmas: The sugar lava bubbling up at the Winkler Bakery in Old Salem. The warm fruitcake at Southern Supreme in Chatham County. The cut-pine scent that perfumes the car on the ride back from the mountains with a fresh Fraser fir lashed to the roof.
Every year, we become children with our noses pressed against the window of memory, waiting for that one whiff that makes it Christmas.
Kathleen Purvis is the food editor of The Charlotte Observer. Join her in giving the gift of local, North Carolina-based foods this Christmas. To find a list of N.C. products, visit ncspecialtyfoods.org.