Christmas is a magical time. It is the most beautiful time of the year for many people. The smell of baked cakes, homemade gingerbread cookies, and hot tea with orange, ginger, and a lot of cloves. But how much chemistry is behind Christmas? When you think about it, it turns out that quite a lot, so we dare to say that Chemistmas time is coming.

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Image credit: Agnieszka Pręgowska & Magdalena Osial

Christmas preparations

Candles

Advent, Advent, a little light is burning, first one, then two, then three, then four. And the Christ Child is at the door. However, first, it is customary to burn candles and they can be really harmful. Traditionally, candles are made from beeswax or soy wax [1], while most scented candles are prepared from petroleum, coal, or shale oil. Scented candles may release highly toxic volatile chemical compounds (VOCs), which may cause allergies, inflammation of soft tissues, or can even be carcinogenic substances [2]. Want to have a nice scent at home for Christmas? It will be healthier not to buy scented candles. Essential oils will be a good alternative.

Christmas balls

Some people feel the Christmas atmosphere in November buying tons of decorations on Black Friday shopping. Others decorate their houses on the day of Christmas Eve. The obligatory ornaments are colorful balls for the Christmas tree. Did you wonder how these fragile baubles are made? This is a masterpiece of transforming the glass into little, thin, and shiny balls. Did you know that these amazing decorations are made of glass? So, we may say that Christmas ball is just a quartz sand SiO2, sodium carbonate Na2CO3, and calcium carbonate CaCO3 that are main components of sand. When it is heated up to 1000°C, it becomes soft and pouring. Glass is an amorphous material which means it does not have a constant, regular crystal structure and after heating it becomes ductile. Christmas balls are shaped by blowing air into the melted glass, and when cooled down, they can be easily coated inside with silver. Of course, the one last step is to decorate balls with festive, colorful patterns by painting them using a mix of resin and various chemical dyes.

Christmas tree

One of the most characteristic scents for Christmas is the resinous smell of the Christmas tree. This characteristic aromatic note of spruce, fir, and pine is due to an organic compound called α-pine, which is found in their resin. It is used for inhalation and also as an insecticide [5,6].

The α-pine is one of the more common terpenes (the volatile ingredient of essential oils). It has the smell of pine, which resembles a fresh, forest aroma. α-pine is also found in conifer oils. Rosemary is another known source of α-pinene, as is eucalyptus oil and orange peel oil. One of the first methods of obtaining α-pinene was to extract it from pine. As consumption increased, synthetic industrial methods were used to produce it.

Christmas aromas

Gingerbread man

What is the most popular Christmas treat? People can argue about it but the truth is Christmas is not completed without spicy gingerbread cookies. What is inside that makes them irresistible? Traditionally it is ginger, cinnamon, dried orange peel, cloves, and nutmeg. We know that gingerbread man smells fine but is it good for our health. In fact, Yes and No. All of the sweets have a lot of sugar and fats which can lead to obesity, heart conditions, and other health problems. However, some ingredients of the dough have a positive effect on our bodies. Cinnamon and ginger are honored with the name “superfoods” and they are full of health benefits such as antioxidant properties [3]. Natural antioxidants are the chemical compounds drawn from food responsible for inhibiting oxidation reactions in our bodies. They protect our cells from damage by stopping the formation of free radicals (affecting our tissues) which in excess can cause diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer [4]. Nutmeg and cloves are known as antioxidants too but they have anti-inflammatory properties as well. The compounds responsible for reducing inflammation are essential oils that are full of terpenes – like d-limonene (citrus scent), sabinene (oak tree scent), pinene (pine tree scent). All of these spices consist of antioxidants such as cyanidins and phenolic compounds which can help people with inflammatory problems.

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Image credit: Paulina Szczytko and Science Embassy

Wine

People often toast while sitting at the Christmas table, but not only do we also drink a very special wine so-called mulled wine. It contains eugenol that is also a terpene [7]. It is an aromatic compound that occurs in incarnation oil and cinnamon. It also has antiseptic (disinfecting) and anesthetic properties, thanks to which it is used in dentistry for disinfecting dental canals and in a mixture with zinc oxide as dental cement. Similar to other terpenes, when overdosed, it also has a stimulating effect and is harmful. It may cause severe skin irritation.

Let it snow

In winter, when the temperature is going down, around zero degrees Celsius, or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and less from moisture in the atmosphere ice crystals are formed. When they are joined together the snow is produced. It is, in fact, frozen water, or ice. Snow can have different forms like snowflakes, pellets, or sleet. Snowflakes that we all love are clusters of these ice crystals that fall from clouds. The shape and size of snowflakes depend on the prevailing temperature [3], but they always have 6 arms thanks to the unique properties of water, thus the chemical formula of snowflakes is H2O [3]. Then they create a cover on the ski slopes, which we all like to dry during Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and winter break. Other snow’s form, snow pellets are ice particles in the atmosphere, which are opaque. They are formed when ice crystals pass through droplets in clouds that have not yet frozen, all at a temperature close to zero. Then they freeze together with the ice crystals to form a transparent mass. Probably, the most unwanted snow type is sleet being raindrops or drizzles that freeze upon falling to the ground. These are small, translucent ice-balls.

When snow is scarce and the weather conditions, artificial snow can be produced. The method of producing snow was discovered by accident in 1940 by an American scientist who investigates the icing of jet engines. He used sprayed water in a wind tunnel at low temperatures. This discovery is now successfully used to provide snowmaking to slopes.

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Image credit: Agnieszka Pręgowska & Magdalena Osial

Summary

Christmas are solemn hours and festive evenings, and unforgettable moments that should be crowned with fresh snow. To a large extent, the unique atmosphere of Christmas is due to the chemical compounds. The fact that Christmas smells so good consists of many aromas, such as the smell of Christmas trees, mulled wine, cinnamon. Chemical ingredients can be found not only in the food being prepared but also in decorative Christmas decorations, in particular in baubles and romantic candles. So Merry Chemistmas!

References

[1] https://www.eca-candles.com/2018/09/30/raw-materials/ (access 10.12.2020)

[2] Derudi, M., Gelosa, S., Sliepcevich, A., Cattaneo, A., Cavallo, D., Rota, R., Nano, G. Emission of air pollutants from burning candles with different composition in indoor environments. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 21, 4320–4330 (2014) DOI:10.1007/s11356-013-2394-2

[3] Bishop, M. P., Björnsson, H., Haeberli, W.,  Oerlemans, J., Shroder, J. F., Tranter, M. (2011), Singh, Vijay P.; Singh, Pratap; Haritashya, Umesh K. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Snow, Ice and Glaciers, Springer Science & Business Media

[4] Kaefer, C. M., Milner, J. A. The role of herbs and spices in cancer prevention. J Nutr Biochem. 19(6), 347–61 (2008) DOI: 10.1016/j.jnutbio.2007.11.003

[5] Jackson, D. A., Dicks, A. P. The Five Senses of Christmas Chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education v89(n10), 1267–1273 (2012)

[6] Helmenstine, A. M. Why Christmas Trees Smell So Good? thoughtco.com/why-christmas-trees-smell-so-good-606134 (access 10.12.2020)

[7] Dordevic, D., Jancikova, S., Tremlova, B. Antioxidant profile of mulled wine. Potravinarstvo Slovak Journal of Food Sciences, 13(1), 415–421 (2019) DOI: 10.5219/1070


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