The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year… Not (I)

A famous author once described the winter holidays as “a cornucopia for the senses.” That’s an apt description indeed. There is the gentle swoosh of sled rails over powdery snow, the lilting beauty of traditional carols, and the magical rhythm of sleigh bells in motion. There are tiny white and colored lights that seem to dance in the inky black outdoors. There is the warm succulence of freshly-made mincemeat. Even the stickiness on one’s hands and fingers after carrying a newly-cut pine tree can evoke all manner of delightful yuletide memories.

And there’s the smell of peppermint and wintergreen in the air.

Actually, I take issue with the last two. Those traditional scents of Christmas were largely ruined for me in the autumn of 1986.

I rotated through the internal medicine and surgery services for a number of months as a medical student, and again as an intern before proceeding to full-time psychiatry training for the remainder of my residency. On both internal medicine and surgery, it was not uncommon to find patients with long neglected open lesions from poorly controlled diabetes mellitus. The soft tissues surrounding these festering wounds had compromised circulation, and were infected, dead, or dying. The gangrenous appendage almost always was amputated, since saving it by that point was usually all-but-impossible.

Up close, the stench could stagger the strongest constitutions, and it wafted down the halls, permeating entire wards. Getting two or more of these patients admitted at the same time rendered that wing of the hospital extremely unpleasant for staff and patients alike.

So someone came up with an idea. They located bottles of an industrial-strength chemical concentrate, a few drops of which would infuse the immediate surroundings with what was thought to be an inoffensive scent. The bandages around the decaying sores were dabbled in this nuclear-powered elixir, and before long the room, and the ward, smelled like something other than rotting flesh.

The essences chosen? Peppermint and wintergreen.

Much like the man who doesn’t bathe but (thinks that he) masks his poor hygiene with a liberal dousing of Old Spice, the pungent chemical odors of peppermint and wintergreen, not necessarily unpleasant in their own rights, quickly came to be subliminally associated by all of the clinical staff with putrid gangrene. And just as the woman who douses with Chanel no.5 to excess, an otherwise pleasant fragrance can become overpowering when used too much and too often.

Years later, candy canes for me have never been the same. Tree-shaped car fresheners are usually nauseogenic. To this day, I still experience a nasty autonomic sensation inside a Yankee Candle, whatever the time of year. And don’t even mention Cracker Barrel’s Old Fashioned Country Store.

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