For many of us, Christmas is a time of celebrating traditions. Aside from on the individual level, there is also, in the broader sense, a yearning for the collective traditions of Christmas. We trim our trees like the Victorians, celebrate with exotic spices and fruits like the Georgians/American colonials, and drink Wassail and burn Yule logs like the Anglo-Saxons. Though many of the older traditions can be more difficult to recreate, there is one which carries the scent of the season, embraces creativity, and, if necessary, will keep the kids busy for a few hours: pomander balls.
Since the 18th century, we have understood the seasonal pomander balls as fragrant and decorative oranges or grapefruits studded with cloves arranged in a pattern and rolled in a mix of ground cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and clove; however there is more to it than this.
Coming from the French term pomme d’ambre, literally ‘apple of amber,’ our word originates in the late Medieval period and can be defined as both the fragrance as well as the case in which the fragrance was carried. Far from our romanticised understanding, pomander (the case) were carried in order to neutralise odours (remember, bathing wasn’t regular yet) as well as to protect against illness and death, whereas the actual aromatic substance was typically shaped like an apple (pomme) and made from a malleable, waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, ambergris, which was shortened to ‘of amber’ (d’ambre).
While Queen Elizabeth I is frequently depicted wearing a pomander, the first known mention of a pomander comes from around 1470, in the translated French Bible of Roger d’Argenteuil, who, defining the container, stated that: “about the border of the said couch, 12 pomanders, wrought without curiously of gold…”.
A mere 2 decades after this, in 1492, Samuel Bentley wrote of the substance in Excerpta Historica, mentioning that: “To one that brought the King a box with pomander 10s.”
Interestingly, though pomander had existed for roughly 400 years before the first estimated incarnation that we have come to associate with the word, it would take a further 2 centuries for our citrus and clove pomander to be mentioned: Jessie Marie De Both, writing for her 1946 Modern Household Encyclopedia, succinctly explains that: “Pomanders may be made from apples, oranges, or lemons—to make, select firm fruit and stick whole cloves into entire surface; hang in clothes closet or place in dresser drawers.”
The Christmas tradition of pomander balls is still trending today and is a lovely way to add scent to the holiday season.