I will admit that as I get older, Christmas gets harder. Not because I am inundated with things to get done and organize, shopping to do, events to plan, people to worry about, presents to agonize over, but rather the opposite: I find it harder to even care. Despite the unplaceable feeling of yearning and temporary homesickness I sometimes suffer from at this time of year (whose pangs can be quite sharp when they do hit me, thinking of family and friends back home), I feel, in many ways, that I have extricated myself from the whole process. Almost as if, being here in a far away, ‘foreign’ country for so long that celebrates Christmas in its own, peculiar and inimitable way (see my piece on Japanese Christmas for a more detailed critique), I have become able to see through the commercial hype and brain-clogging claptrap of it all the more clearly – the accumulation and repetition and the sheer predictability of it all just a fixed point on the calendar that we know will come around at precisely the same time each year and be celebrated in exactly the same kind of way.



Which is the whole point, I do realize. Societies and individuals need festivals and occasions to come together, a chance to celebrate something more than the focus on the self and ‘getting ahead’; to move out of our own self-obsessed spaces for a while and spend time with loved ones (despite the ridiculous amounts of stress that this seems to cause so many people!): wind down after a year of working and trying to just psychologically survive in this exhausting and overwhelming contemporary world, which, this year especially, has so depleted the energies and the spirits, leaving us feeling like broken and enervated husks. Traditions exist to allow us to strive for something higher, or at least more generalizingly human. Plus, they can be very enjoyable in the right circumstances and frame of mind: even joyful; something to look forward to and be excited about: that beautiful, piercing, reflective, melancholic end-of-yearness, when you look back and mull over what you have done and what you haven’t, coupled with the noise, and the smells, and the touching realities of the standard, complicated, family Christmas.




I think for me it all comes down to the loss of magic. And the terrible pressure I always feel to try and replicate it. Which is never going to be possible. Not ever – unless you yourself have children and can enter their pure and innocent world and believe again; or at least let their own beautiful unsullied enthusiasms rub off on you………perhaps then, and only then can you re-enter, to some extent, that frosty wintry wonderland of elves and reindeer and Silent Nights and holly and No Cribs For A Bed. Because, when Christmas was truly magical, you were a child and so believed in the lie of Father Christmas; that snow -whitest of lies (that I am very glad we were told because I have such intensely beautiful memories of that time), that to try and access them, now, in the face of the present, soul-clagging reality of department store Xmas and the same, tired old songs repeated year after year and the hideous poinsettias and discount tinsel and cheap, red felt Santa costumes and tins of solid jellied cranberries – it can, on occasion, leave a man feeling almost desolate.




We have tried. Over the years we have faithfully attempted to stir up some genuine Yuletide magic in our house here in Kamakura by setting up twinkling Christmas trees, putting up the fairy lights (which always slightly do the trick for me, I must say), and putting on the relevant music – right now as I write this I am listening to Japanese electronic pioneer Tomita’s Snowflakes Are Dancing – synthesizer reworkings of Debussy piano pieces that have the requisite sparkle and are giving me some vaguely Christmassy feelings in the pit of my stomach, but sometimes it can feel as though there were some kind of futility lurking beneath it all. Why do we keep doing it? We are not Christians (although I have some residual feelings myself in that regard) and here, in any case, it is usually just another day in the week and nobody else on the street is doing it and it can feel as if you are flaying yourself into trying to get that feeling back, that marvellousness of memory from when you were a kid that you know still lives within you somewhere, but that you know, in your heart, you never will.




No. The best recent Christmases (I never go back to England for it now – I prefer to return in the summer) have been the ones where we have just said f*** it, let’s just get away and do something different. Although I was neurotically worried that I would feel bereft and depressed just relinquishing Christmas and not going through the motions, in fact, the first time we tried doing something new, when we went down to Kyoto in the freezing cold weather a few years ago, it ironically ended up feeling more Christmassy in the end than anything we had done for many years through the sheer spontaneity of each day’s discoveries, the exquisite environment, and then happening, purely by chance on Christmas Day, to come across a Japanese restaurant by the Sumida river that was traditionally Nipponesque but which also had a small glowing Christmas tree in the corner that felt beautifully and unexpectedly right. In the same way, jetting off to Florida and New Orleans with Duncan’s family two years ago also shook things up in delightul ways: it was almost as if by nutcracking open that Fabergé egg of familiarity and repetition you could see the light again.




I know that perhaps the majority of people deep down really are sticklers for tradition and want to do things exactly the same way every year – I remember my mother trying once, in an attempt to do something a bit different for a change, to have Christmas dinner in the evening, by candlelight instead of at the required 3pm around the time of the Queen’s Speech, a break with tradition that I was completely for personally ( I get deeply bored myself by deadening routine and stultifying traditions that can brook no compromise), but this change of precious habit caused such consternation and mayhem and regret among everybody else present (somehow it apparently‘didn’t feel right’ for various reasons), that no changes, to my knowledge, were ever suggested again. Like me, then, I suppose my family are also chasing the ghosts of Christmas past and want, again, to enter that exhilaratingly enchanting and enchanted space where my siblings and I, as young children, would rush downstairs to the Christmas tree lights and decorations to open our huge bags of presents, utterly convinced that Santa Claus and his helpers had really been there, excited to the point of delirium, and overjoyed that this nebulous, external presence who had drunk his glass of sherry and eaten his frosted biscuits and flown on a sleigh ride in the starry skies of constellations had somehow managed to brush our living space – and are trying, through ritual and renactment, to bring it all back again, to now.



But this is all something that I can’t, and don’t want to, try to go back to any more. Duncan and I don’t even usually give each other presents  (something I feel rather conflicted and guilty about: recently my family in England and I also decided that it was just too much bother buying and packaging and sending things from our two, very distant countries; part of me does just feel it is an encumbrance, but at the same time, I feel childishly jealous and regretful in a way)  – but on that vividly memorable trip to Kyoto, the first time we had ever truly broken free from the Christmas traditions, we just decided that if we saw something small that we liked, we would buy it for each other. In the end, that was what we did: just a nice winter scarf each –  but somehow it felt better, more precious, and more suited to the original Christmas spirit, than this excess of requested gifts that cost the earth, which, although in some ways expressing love, do in other ways to me seem the antithesis of the original Christmas.






We would always have a Nativity play in my primary school every year, little children dressed up in the familiar Bethlehem roles, a reimagining of time and place that always took me close to the more transcendent aspect of Christmas (particularly the music: I always have been a total dreamer and wanted to escape from reality), as well as sometimes going to the local church not far from our house for a ‘Christingle’ celebration on Christmas Eve that saw children dressed in white and red ceremonial garb carrying foil-wrapped oranges with candles in them down the darkened church aisles. That vision, and the smell of the church, and the heartwarming singing of carols, was always the perfect start to Christmas Eve for me, the contrast between otherwordly solemnity and then the more animal-like familiarity of our house on Dovehouse Lane where we would then come home and eat practically a whole giant tin of Cadbury’s Roses chocolates under the glimmer of Christmas lights, a selection box of caramels and nuts and fruit filled chocolates that we had every year, a Chapman tradition, and which we would stuff our faces with in anticipation of the glorious feast that would be Christmas dinner the next day. I suppose these are the smells now  – the loitering smoke of frankincense and the eerie, and absorbing, smell of churches; oranges, and spice, and the gorgeously evocative scent of Christmas trees themselves, pine needles coating the living room carpet to the exasperation of my mum who was always having to then vacuum them up (in my memory we always had real trees – plastic ones just aren’t the same), that most evoke in that ghostly, emotionally overwhelming sense we call smell, the magic that I sometimes just can’t help, now that I am much older, and in spite of myself, still trying to chase.







This year, though, forget trying to reawaken English dreams of snowmen and walks under Yew trees and clear, starry skies (though the moon has been very beautiful here recently). I have been, like so many of you I am also assuming, just so exhausted by the events of the world and the horrors of this year, not to mention the strains of my job and various health issues that have meant administrative and financial hell here in the world of Japanese hospitals (and a sense, at times, that my life is not entirely my own), that I just don’t have the capacity to try and contrive any heart-searing, emotional replicas of Noël. We are having no tree this year.



















But despite all of the above, now that my Christmas and New Year holidays have begun, and I have retreated into my much needed slob of a cocoon (no one reading this has any idea of how truly lazy I am), after a week, since finishing work, of socializing with Japanese friends that I wouldn’t get the chance ordinarily to see, of cooking while listening to my favourite records in the kitchen (heaven), and some days just doing nothing, or else going out to the cinema by myself or with Duncan, I have had the luxury ( and I realize how lucky I am in these days in Japan of death from overwork and exploitation and wars and death in Syria and elsewhere and everything else to even have this time, this life; most of my Japanese colleagues don’t); the true luxury of beginning to feel a sense of life and possibility coming back to me, an untightening of some of the stress, and a sensation that my heart and mind and senses are open again to whatever is coming next.






Which, right now, just seven days from now, is Christmas. And you know what, this year I think I am fine with just being here in Kamakura and going off to Tokyo and Yokohama for days out and not bothering with too much Christmas fuss (though I have considered cooking my first ever Christmas dinner, or else, if we can’t bothered, we might go off instead to a theatre restaurant we like in Ueno where we once saw the Bolshoi perform Swan Lake and I cried like a baby).  Tokyo, like most cities the world over, is of course in ‘festive mood’ at present, and when I went off to Shinjuku on Friday to see a film and do some perfuming, I caught a glimpse, despite myself, in the cold, lung-freshing air and the lights and the shining department store baubles, of something that felt a little bit like Christmas. I also was on the hunt for a perfume that might do the same, and was thinking that Rêve D’Ossian, a curious perfume I had smelled before but not properly tried on my skin, by revived nineteenth and early twentieth century Oriza L LeGrand, might do the trick.







I adore frankincense. I find it such a beautifully luminiscent, soothing but simultaneously spectral smell, and am rarely without the essential oil, which I use in the bath, in face creams, on the chest when we have colds, or even a drop on the tongue at night to help me sleep. There are some natural essences that you are inherently ‘at one’ with, and frankincense, like bergamot, sweet marjoram, clove and patchouli, is that for me. In perfumery, though, I rarely find a frankincense that truly works. They are usually clad in far too many harsh, aggressive, ‘incense’ and synthetic wood accords that are supposed, I think,  to make you think of Bedouin fires in the desert, Omar Sharif, or the Three Wise Men (even Comme Des Garçons brilliantly holographic Catholic cathedral Avignon eventually, unfortunately takes this path): but to me, while obviously seductive, mysterious, and erotic, these incense perfumes don’t reveal the true, apparitional ethereality of frankincense, which, as humans have known since ancient times, really is a communion between this world and the next.






Shinjuku Isetan, probably Tokyo’s best department store for niche perfumery, has a selection of Oriza L LeGrand fragrances, though most of them were behind the counter when I went and I had to ask specifically to be able to sample them (perhaps they are just a touch too old fashioned for trendy, Tokyoite contempories). Relique D’Amour, for instance, one of two frankincense perfumes by this house, is not only ‘old’, it smells positively ancient. Beyond the grave ancient; creepy, like a damp crypt in a French monastery collecting water. Quite fascinating, actually, and definitely one for the pondering gothic and morbid among us, with its notes of greenery (the moss and the ivy creeping on the walls outside); of rising damp; waxed wood (the pews in the church that stands above) and the light, dewy breath of fresh lilies as you first enter the sacristy. Christmassy, perhaps, but only for true Brides Of Christ and other adherents of the devout. You can practically feel the cold, inspiriting breath of the Holy Ghost.








Far more evocative of my personal childhood Christingle memories, and a much more soothing, benevolent perfume in general, is Rêve D’Ossian, a true frankincense scent that achieves a beautiful balance between cold and warmth.  Apparently originally released in 1905 but reorchestrated for 2012, in some ways this is like the frankincense equivalent of Serge Lutens’ La Myrrhe of 1995: aldehydes lifting the mystical incense to fresher heights and throw, while a bed of labdanum, benzoin, musk and sandalwood/vetiver lie beneath faint gestures of pine trees and cinnamon. The effect is cogent and natural – like the cordiality of bodies congregated in a Christmas Eve church service; the lingering warmth of incense huddled in the rafters; a semi-religious gentleness and aerated smoothness that took me out of my immediate environment (Shinjuku station is the busiest in the entire world, as, probably, are the streets) and which put me, for a moment or two at least, in a definitively different, more contemplative, and  Christmas-like, space.






















Filed under Frankincense


  1. emmawoolf

    This is a gorgeous post. Well done (and I hope that you do have a lovely Christmas) x

    • Thanks E. Does any of this chime with you?Do I sound like a total Bah Humbug?

      • emmawoolf

        Well I wondered if the comment about stress was aimed directly at me. No you don’t appear a Bah Humbug at all,’s different for me. I have kids (I know you know this) and I live in the same county as my parents. So a family Christmas is non-negotiable. Then the day after boxing day, the in-laws are descending for three days. To be honest I’ve been dreading it all, but actually, your post has reminded me what Christmas is all about. The ritual of it all, I like. The tradition, the recipes. And so it’s what we will do again.

      • The stress thing I assumed was true for many people – in truth you specifically were not at all in my mind when I wrote this. There aren’t many people I know that have it calm yet joyous the whole time, and different families and groups of people I know seem to have unique sets of aggravations. Some have overt aggro: people shouting at each other and having digs. Others have more passive aggressive niggles and unspoken resentments. Some people can’t even talk to their families because they are so different that they have nothing to say ( I am lucky in this regard: my family might be volatile, but there is a direct line of straight communication between us all – we are all quite similar, really). Yes, it can be stressful for people. But at the same time, I do think we need such times, these rites (as you say, there is definitely something appealing about all of that in some ways – I think it must be in the human DNA). I hope this (rather overemotional) piece doesn’t come across as me being some kind of tragic Peter Pan character who is always weeping over the loss of Christmas Magic. It’s more that I hate the fact that it arrives every year and I feel that I HAVE to get into all that again. I would happily postpone it for a few years, in all honesty. It should be like the Olympics: every four years, and then it would be really special!

  2. Lilybelle

    Unless you have children, or are a child (which I am, actually, still) it is impossible to muster up the Christmas spirit on demand, and especially as the season begins ever earlier each year. I do believe in Christmas magic, but it comes on its own, unexpectedly – it is magic after all – like when you and Duncan were in that restaurant and there was a small lit tree in the corner. You might try NOT feeling Christingle, making a concerted effort to avoid it. I bet it will find you anyway. Just go with the flow. I don’t like doing the same thing every year either. But wherever I am, the Christmas spirit finds me somehow. It doesn’t have to be elaborate nor same-old. It’s way better if it isn’t. I am a convert to K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Sugar. And I celebrate 12 days, not just a big buildup to the one. It’s lovely to be free to do want you want on holidays. If you can’t Christmas fuhgeddaboutit, it will gind you.

    Rêve d’Ossian sounds wonderful! Orange-Spice is the scent of Christmas for me, too. I tried wearing some vintage Opium the other day to conjure up the feeling, but it was a fail. Opium never really worked on me, and my hudband complained. Oh well. Christingle will manifest in something else, I have no doubt.

    ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡ ♡

    • How lovely reading this is. I don’t entirely mind if it doesn’t, but I know you are right: the forced Christmas Spirit is just not the way to go. It amazes me just how much we all CARE about this time of year though.

  3. Neil, what a magnificent post! I feel this way every year at this time, yet most of my friends, and what’s left of my family, are just the opposite. My three sons are grown but I do have two grandchildren so I do need to go shopping. Working full time and being a single/divorced person who has to do everything for herself with no one to share any responsibilities, makes Christmas just another chore and an added expense for my already hard to meet budget. Yet I took the day off on Friday to start my shopping and ended up getting everything done in 6 1/2 hours after which I settled down at the bar of a local restaurant (that I have frequented many times over the past years) where there were soft Christmas songs playing in the background, lots of hubbub and some familiar faces and suddenly I felt a little Christmas spirit. I’m not sure if it was the surroundings, the glass of wine, the music and happy people, or just the fact of my relief knowing that I was done with the shopping that stirred the Christmasy feeling. Yes, the commercialism and the guilt feelings all the ads convey, now make Christmas just another venue for making people spend money. My best Christmas memories from the past have nothing to do with gifts but with the comrade among people and the feeling that we are all in this world together that seems to only happen this time of year.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and Duncan!

    • And to you too. I’m glad that you at least had some floaty Yuletide sensations over the wine. If I had been doing Christmas shopping all day (I get SO hot and flustered in these places you wouldn’t believe)it would have been the whole bottle.

  4. Tara C

    I am not christian and don’t celebrate christmas, but I do like pretty coloured lights and incense a lot. I have a fair number of incense perfumes, including the Oriza Legrands, but sadly they only last about an hour on me, so I only apply them shortly before bed as a relaxing go to sleep scent. Frankincense is quite possibly my favourite note in all of perfumery, it is so magical.

    • What other frankincense perfumes do you know that keep the frankincense up top and don’t heavy it up too much? I quite liked Encens Flamboyant, although it was a tad sweet for me, and I know you like Passage D’Enfer, which is a great rendition of this note done in that light, floral way I like.

      I know that Boy George wears pure frankincense essential oil as a perfume. Have you ever tried this? If it is too strong, you could blend it with some beeswax or jojoba oil and just have it as a secret wrist scent when you wanted to top up that note. I do that with bergamot, actually. A whole bottle in vaseline and it just smells delightful. I can just wear it straight that way, and it is amazing as a way to complement perfumes like Shalimar or Vol De Nuit. You have the perfume on your body, and then when you rock up the top notes by dipping into your scented tub of citrus, it smells AMAZING. You can do the same with frankincense. I once did, actually, and wore it on my chest at night. It literally does physiologically slow down the breathing and induce the purest tranquillity.

  5. sylviavirginia

    What a lovely, expressive and clear-eyed look into the heart of Christmas.
    I think as we all get older we realize that we can never again experience Christmas as we once did as children. My brother and I never fell asleep it seems on Christmas Eve, never cheated, never even peeked though we did not buy into the Santa, reindeer and down the chimney bit as we lived in the heart of New York City…yet we so wanted to believe, to swallow it hook, line and sinker – perhaps we did.
    As for the perfumes of Christmas all I can say though it is not Christmas yet…I have been drenching myself in the sweetest, floweriest perfumes I own…Tobacco Rose, Jardin Blanc, Rouge, Edwardian Bouquet etc. perhaps as a subterfuge from chills, black skies, 4 pm darkness, high
    winds. Every bottle foreign to winter is a comfort … and an escape!!!!

    • You know what, I don’t think we cheated either. There was something sacrosanct about obeying what your parents had told you to do that it would have been inconceivable to cheat, even if you were DYING to do so. I really cherish such memories. I don’t think we really slept either, and we would be jumping up and down on my parents’ bed at about 5am, the moment a chink of light appeared through the window.

      Jardin Blanc, incidentally……how gorgeous. I think Maitre Gantier is underrated – that one is SO lush. And Rouge…….only yesterday I was wearing Parfum D’Hermes, Rouge’s predecessor. YES: the velvet warmth is ideal in this season. Merry Christmas!

  6. I love Frankincense too, I too wear the oil…
    This post really captures the adult world and memories of Xmas past. I have never experienced a snowy Xmas. Aussies get together in the heat…eat mangoes cherries…BBQ, backyard cricket games, family awkwardness exist here as well lol…
    Merry Xmas to you in Japan
    Xx from Australia

  7. Yeah not feeling Christmassy here either. Australia is sort of betwixt and between as far as Christmas is concerned – we are of the old country and feel the need to do turkey, ham, Christmas pud, mince pies, things based around the dried fruit and nuts of winter, when we are surrounded by the wonderful produce of summer – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, zucchini. I utterly refuse to cook a turkey. So far the plan is a plate of cheese and home made smoked trout pate, followed by salads and a bought, reheated main and something cold for dessert involving a lot of fat and fresh fruit on the side. And alcohol. There will be alcohol. Prosecco and champagne. Maybe an old semillon. Followed by coffee, homemade shortbread, chocolate, and maybe a little lie down. Hmmm, more organised than I thought!

    Thanks for your deeper philosophical look at perfume and life over this year, I’ve been quietly lurking and enjoying your thoughts.

    Whatever you and Duncan end up doing, I hope you both enjoy yourselves.

    • Thank you very much. This is beautiful to read and I hope you have a fantastic Christmas. Me and the Doy are massive Kath and Kim fans. In my imagination I fantasise it must be something like that down ‘under’. One day we will make it there.

  8. Loved this. Being Canadian and Anglophilic, it really strikes a chord. A quintessentially English Christmas imbued with that sense of tradition and sentimental history seemed magical to me as a kid from a much newer country. We watched A Christmas Carol (1951) every year growing up and that said everything to me. I knew our family had roots in the UK and there was a kind of longing to “go back.”

    These days, Ric and I put Christmas ornaments on the bare-branched alder sapling tied to the deck and watch the winter birds fly down to the feeder. We’re surrounded by enormous cedars and balsam firs and we had snow for the first time in memory. Yesterday afternoon, a bobcat crossed the front yard. Last week, there was a black bear. As Christmasy as the southwest coast of British Columbia gets.

  9. I am personally not feeling too much of the Christmas spirit this year. For the first time ever, I do not even have a Christmas tree. I guess too much energy is being expended on my ailing mother for it to be focused on Christmas. But I do have glorious memories of Christmas past. Too many glorious memories. Hopefully next year I will find the spirit once again.
    These two fragrances sound lovely, I really need to order samples of them.

  10. Tara C

    It was nice to re-read this piece and my earlier comment. To answer your question about other frankincense perfumes, I do love Encens Flamboyant and don’t mind the sweetness. But for a more pure frankincense hit, I reach for Tauer Incense Extreme or Profumum Olibanum. The pure essential oils I’ve found are a bit too strong and harsh for me.

    The other thing I’ve been really enjoying the last year or so is palo santo, both the burning wood and a perfume called Be the Shaman by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. It is very soothing.

  11. Robin

    What’s miraculous to me about your writing is that I can read something of yours again several years later and, like an exceptionally good book, read an entirely different piece. Vaguely familiar, in a good way, but also fresh, original and capable of sparking new insights and new musings. You’ve got a gift, and we’re lucky to be on the receiving end of it.

    Ric and I have been increasingly and happily, gratefully cocooning ourselves at Christmastime. We’ve both moved far away from family years ago, close friends have slowly moved away, and by a process of attrition we weren’t really aware of until this year, when our last good friend left, we’re now on our own. I think being our age makes this a not-uncommon thing, as well as being in a tiny hamlet a ferry ride away from urban civilization. Strangely, it’s been the best lead-up to Christmas yet — I think because we have the sense of freedom that we can do anything we like, and nothing we don’t. That unplanned independence feels as though it’s drawing us closer together, the way I can often feel anyway because Ric hauls logs and splits his own firewood for the wood stove (no other source of heat in his cabin; he flipped off the circuit box’s fuse for the baseboard heaters twenty years ago and swore he’d never flip it on again). Keeping warm, the elemental nature of it: there’s an intimacy in depending on Ric for something so essentially life-sustaining. I think because in that way, and other ways, our life is extraordinarily basic, all things Christmas-y feel extraordinarily luxurious, and we feel inordinately grateful for them. The usual turkey, stuffing, gravy et al feels like a meal we invented ourselves.

    It’s not technically an incense fragrance, but Donna Karan Black Cashmere gives me the same transcendent, mysterious, spiritual feeling.

  12. I loved reading this again and I love both of those scents so much.
    Christmas and all its complexities are just so magical to me. I guess I always will adore it as I did when a child, even though the true magic is lost to the sands of time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s