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The psychology of Christmas flavours and evoking nostalgia

BY Angela Youngman

12th Dec 2023 Christmas

4 min read

The psychology of Christmas flavours and evoking nostalgia
The aromatic mix of Christmas flavours have a powerful impact on the mind, taking us instantly back to childhood—and no one capitalises on it better than brands
It’s cold and dark outside. My thoughts turn to the warm comfort of a chai latte or a gingerbread chai, only to find I have run out. I head out to Bird & Blend seeking the comfort of these winter delights.
Later calling in the supermarket, I find myself lingering beside mouth-watering displays of boxes of chocolates, bottles of mulled wine and boxes of satsumas.
After all, Christmas is approaching.

Festive fare

Star shaped shortbread with cranberry jam compote
It’s not just me. At this time of the year, it is part of our emotional make up to respond to the clean, resiny smell of fir trees, the tastes of spices and oranges, the sight of deep reds, greens and golds as well as familiar objects like robins, Santas, elves and glittering stars.
We automatically start looking for traditional festive fare like mince pies and Yule logs.  

Smells and tastes of Christmas

Manufacturers and retailers are well aware of this, and deliberately create products and displays that evoke that instinctive response to the senses of smell, taste and sight.
Krisi, co-founder of Bird & Blend says, “We’re all about crafting that nostalgic festive spirit into our Christmas collection. Each sip is designed as a journey into the vibe of Christmas itself, wrapped in a cosy mug and the enticing aroma of festive joy.
"When you step into our stores it’s not just shopping. It’s an immersion into the gifting season. We build Christmas into a fully sensory experience, from smells to taste and even touch, because that's ultimately what makes us festive.”
"We build Christmas into a fully sensory experience, from smells to taste and even touch"
Increasingly products are given a slight twist to combine novelty with tradition and nostalgia.
Such touches turn familiar foods into something new and different, adding to the sense of incipient excitement.

The nostalgia of festive flavours

Gingerbread man with Santa outfit icing next to chai latte
Rhonda Macfayden, senior chocolatier at Hotel Chocolat, points out “flavours can awaken nostalgia in all of us when we smell and taste traditional Christmas flavours such as cinnamon, clove and orange.
"These flavours transport us back to a specific Christmas from our childhood. For some it can become a tradition to always have a certain flavour, chocolate or other food item on a certain day during the festive period.”
Food psychologist Greg Tucker of the Marketing Clinic agrees. “At Christmas a stimulus is associated with an emotional response. A child is hyped up at Christmas and it is then that certain rituals and associations are played out.
"These flavours transport us back to a specific Christmas from our childhood"
"The Christmas tree is a source of both sparkly excitement from the lights and also the faint pine smell that infuses the room. No wonder that this aroma is so resonant of festive fun. Likewise cinnamon and cloves, with mince pie connotations and other Christmas treats.” 
Alison Lily, founder of Lillypuds comments, “Ginger epitomises Christmas—warming, cosy and fiery, plus it wouldn’t be a figgy pudding without the figs. The beer we use works well—spicy, gingery, rich and indulgent—just the thing for a cosy Christmas.” 

Luxury sensations of the season

Christmas dinner table with gold pine cones, napkins and shortbread biscuits
Evoking a sense of luxury in the product or packaging can also make a difference when it comes to choosing one item over another during the festive season.
The use of purple, reds, golds and greens along with wintery images immediately captures attention. Everywhere you go in retail stores or online, these are the dominant images, overtly encouraging you to feel festive and willing to buy.
It only needs a slight change from a conventional image or taste to evoke that instinctive response, such as a double star on Asda’s special luxury mince pies, prominent references to rich ruby port and oranges, while Opies' combination of spiced mulled gin with forest fruits brings wholesome countryside flavours to festival alcohol.
Everyone likes cheese at Christmas, so the Snowdonia Cheese Company offers new, indulgent festive taste sensations with truffle trove cheddar or an evocatively warming Welsh rarebit Snowdonia melted cheese, complete with tasty fig and cranberry crackers for a party food twist. 

Brussels sprouts become acceptable!

Even food that is often regarded with disfavour such as Brussels sprouts become acceptable when combined with something more appealing. Who could resist a Popcorn Kitchen’s chocolate ganache sprouts popcorn kit
“Positive associations and emotional assessments mean we react faster than we do if we were making rational, considered judgements. The response is one of heightened enjoyment and pleasure—the brain associates these stimuli with good things,” explains Greg Tucker.
"Emotional assessments mean we react faster than we do if we were making rational, considered judgements"
“What smart brands do is take some of these cues and secrete them within their products to give a heightened sense of seasonal relevance.
"Especially if these aromas or flavours are partially masked so when the brain does discover them, there is a moment, maybe not even consciously, that says ‘these are Christmas, safe and reassuringly homely, good and pleasurable.’”
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