Scent Semantics, December 6, 2021

Scent Semantics, December 6, 2021

Last month, organized by Portia, a group of us fragrance bloggers embarked on a collaborative project called “Scent Semantics.” On the first Monday of each month, we all take a word — the same word — as inspiration for a post that has some relationship to fragrance, broadly interpreted. There are six participating blogs: Scents and Sensibilities (here), The Plum GirlThe Alembicated GenieEau La LaUndina’s Looking Glass, and A Bottled Rose. I hope you’ll all check out the Scent Semantics posts on each blog! I’m also counting this as my post for Scented Advent, Day 6.

Scent Semantics blog list

This month’s word is “angelic”, which is so apropos for this time of year. Lest you think angels are only relevant at this season to Christians and Christmas (my own faith tradition), I have learned that there is also a beautiful, traditional Jewish song, a zemirot, or “table hymn”, to welcome angels to a family’s Shabbat table, and it is often sung during Hanukkah, which ends tonight (December 6). It is called “Shalom Aleichem“, translated as “Peace be upon you.” What a lovely tradition! And of course, the angels of Christian tradition come straight to us from Judaism and the Old Testament, most notably the angel Gabriel, who appears in all three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and their scriptures as God’s messenger.

Gabriel is very busy during the months before and after the birth of Jesus Christ, according to Christian gospel and tradition. It is he who announces to Mary that God has chosen her to bear His son (the “Annunciation”). He also visits the husband of her childless cousin Elizabeth, a rabbi named Zechariah, telling him that he and his wife, despite their age and infertility, are to be blessed with a son. When Zechariah, doubting, asks for a sign, Gabriel strikes him dumb until his son is born and named (the baby boy will grow up to become John the Baptist, who presages Jesus’ ministry). Mary and Elizabeth spend part of their pregnancies together, Elizabeth recognizing that Mary has been blessed among women (the “Visitation“).

Tradition also holds that when Mary returns to Nazareth and her betrothed husband-to-be Joseph, visibly pregnant and not by him, Joseph is understandably troubled. Gabriel appears to him in a dream and assures him that he should go ahead and marry Mary, because she had not been unfaithful to him or unchaste, and that the child she would bear was to be the son of God and the long-awaited Messiah.

On the night that Jesus is born, the angel Gabriel appears to shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem and tells them that the Messiah has been born, and where to find him and his mother. Here is one of my favorite illustrations of that scene, which I think captures the essence of angels better than any:

Vision of angel wings, appearing to shepherds on Christmas Eve
An angel appears to shepherds outside Bethlehem. Art by Gary Blythe,, for “This Is The Star.”

I’ve left the illustration in a larger format so you can see the details. So what, you are asking, does all this have to do with fragrance? I am now the happy owner of several “Heirloom Elixirs” by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, and one of them is a gorgeous fragrance called Angel’s Wing.

It is based on the scents of two plants, both of which have varieties named “Angel’s Wing”: milkweed and jasmine. Jasmine, of course, is very familiar to lovers of perfume; but milkweed? In Dawn’s words:

Both are exquisitely beautiful, and both have geneses that are colloquially named “Angel’s Wing.”   And perhaps you didn’t know that both have fragrant blooms of distinct loveliness.  Angel’s Wing, the perfume, takes both the milky / sappy plant notes, as well as notes from the blossom of the milkweed plant and fuses them with the haunting scent of Angel’s Wing jasmine.  Together they create a lush, verdant, and rich scent that balances both cool and warm sensations, which makes it a perfect scent for this very time of year (and to guide us through our own transformations, too).

Angel’s Wing is ethereal but powerful, like the illustration above. It doesn’t smell like any other created fragrance I know, despite the familiarity of jasmine (which treads softly here, dancing in and out but never dominating the scent). It has an aura of yellow pollen, and there is an actual milkiness to it, combined with green sap, but it’s not dairy milk; it’s more of a perceived creamy texture than an actual milky smell. It reminds me a bit of honeysuckle nectar. Milkweed is an essential food source for the endangered Monarch butterflies, and butterflies fired Dawn’s imagination for this scent of the transitional season from September to October: “the inspiration came from a palpable sense of our own transition and transformation.  It started with the butterfly: the symbol of transformation itself.” Transformation. How — angelic.

Milkweed seeds are remarkably graceful; they burst from their pods with feathery white parasols ready to carry them on the wind, far and wide. They float with the lightest puff of a breeze — ethereal, yes, but persistent in their pursuit of the plant’s survival and spread. Their delicate fluff reminds me of the feathered yet powerful wings illustrated above, as Gabriel visits the shepherds.

Single milkweed seed floating over prairie
Milkweed seed floating over grassland; image from

The angel Gabriel’s last appearance in the Nativity story is just after Jesus’ birth, when he again visits Joseph in a dream. Gabriel warns him to flee with Mary and the newborn child, to evade the soldiers who will shortly raid Bethlehem and murder its infant sons, seeking to kill an unknown but prophesied child who is seen as a threat to the reigning King Herod. Joseph and Mary escape safely to Egypt and the holy child survives. This tragic end to the Christmas of the gospels is often ignored, as our traditions become more and more secular, but it presages Jesus’ own fate when his presence, words, and acts become a threat to the reigning powers in Jerusalem.

On a happier note, and speaking of angels and Christmas traditions, if you ever get a chance to visit New York during the holidays, the best Christmas tree in town is not the one in Rockefeller Center (glorious as that is). No, it’s the annual Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is installed every year in the museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall together with a Neapolitan Baroque “crèche”, or Nativity scene. Together with the usual villagers, shepherds, Holy Family, visiting kings, and all the structures and animals imagined for Bethlehem by these Baroque artisans, there are angels. Dozens and dozens of angels, hovering above, suspended from the 20+ foot-tall tree’s branches.

Christmas tree and crèche, Metropolitan Museum, New York. Image from
Nativity scene and angels on the Met Museum's annual Christmas tree.
Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; other side,

It is a breathtaking sight that never grows stale, no matter how often I’ve visited. New York exudes magic at Christmastime, and this tree is an essential ingredient in the magic.

Of the Heirloom Elixirs I’ve tried so far, Angel’s Wing is one of my favorites. It has won my heart with its somewhat odd combination of ingredients. I think it would suit any season, really, though if you avoid floral scents in the winter, in favor of spices, resins, incense, etc., you might want to save it for spring. It doesn’t change much over the time I’ve worn it, although it does become slightly warmer and it has a soft musky base that emerges from behind the milkweed and jasmine.

What do you think of when you hear or read the word “angelic”?

P.S. Everything but one particular scent on DSH Perfumes’ website can be had for 20% off for the rest of this year, using the code “light20”. This is Dawn’s annual “thank-you” sale, and it includes a set of this year’s Heirloom Elixirs that you can buy even if you hadn’t previously subscribed. I did both, as one of my small efforts to support our independent perfumers (many of whom have faced hard times during this pandemic).