DAY ONE: Jólabókaflóðið A dribble of candle wax, distant hearth-smoke, a fleck of chocolate Yule log on a thick wool sweater, and aged, yellowing paper bound by well-loved leather that has passed through many gentle hands.
When I first heard of it, I immediately loved the idea of this Icelandic tradition of the year-end “book flood,” the exchanging books on Christmas Eve, and then spending the evening reading them–but I was sorely disappointed when I asked my Icelandic partner about this tradition, and sadly digested his ensuing reply: “yeah…it’s a thing…but it’s not really A Thing.” Like a food coma and watching football after Thanksgiving dinner, he conjectures, “it’s not really a tradition…it’s just a thing that happens.”
But, I’m thinking…well, if the thing happens frequently enough at scheduled intervals…doesn’t this annual widespread phenomena then just, you know, become a tradition? Can’t we just make this A Thing? CAN’T WE MAKE YOUR FAMILY MAKE THIS A THING? Well, the only point I am making here is that this particular Icelandic family sits around and talks and laughs FOR HOURS after dinner and yeah that’s great and all, but at no point does anyone ever retire to a soft, shadowy corner or a cozy sofa with their books, and for years I have been feeling bitterly misled about this Jólabókaflóðið tradition/phenomena/thing indeed.
As for the scent it has inspired, I am in no way embittered at all: it is the delicate ivory of white chocolate, the mild honeyed floral of beeswax candles, and if this can be translated to fragrance (and our friends at BPAL are experts in such translations) the gentle, tremblingly anticipatory manner with which one handles the crisp cover of a brand new book.
DAY TWO: Frostbitten Alice is from the Snowdrift series, a collection of scents that have been combined with BPAL’s beloved Snow White. A limited-edition fragrance introduced in 2003, Snow White is beautifully chilly and crystalline, conjuring visions of snow flurries, frosty winter winds, and the icy ghost-breath puffs of night-blooming flowers. Paired with Alice’s milky carnation and citrusy rose, the result is the loveliest vanilla-honey-creamy white floral snow cone confection, served with a tiny spoon in the daintiest dollhouse china teacup.
DAY THREE: Krampus Sinister red musk, black and rust-brown leathers, dusty rags, and wooden switches.
Whenever I think I might know a thing or two about perfume and fragrance, I get a whiff of something like Krampus that has me rethinking everything I thought I knew! Krampus opens for me with dusty shards of medieval wintergreen candies, with which I assume Krampus is heartily pelting naughty village children as he chases them down to the river. An hour later I smell, very close to the skin, a sort of woodland brûlée, a winter tree flan that has been dusted with sugar crystals and torched up a bit. Tethering the two stages is that roguish red musk, a bit fruity, a bit floral, and deeply narcotic.
DAY FOUR: Black coffee and old books smells both exactly like you think it might, and more, and less. The bitter grounds and dusty pages make themselves known not at the beginning, but rather a few minutes into the scent’s life on your skin. First though, is a tender waft of light green musk, gently bracing, a tugging at the corners of one’s mouth as you contemplate the sacred promise of the pleasure one derives from the rituals of their black coffee and old books. What old books to you turn to during the wintry season?
DAY FIVE: Christmas Pudding treacle, suet accord, custard
Loosely based on a medieval recipe, and crafted, as tradition dictates, from thirteen ingredients, Christmas Pudding smells of a boozy, syrupy compote, swimming thickly with brandied currants, dried plums, glacé cherries, and stewed long into the hours of a chilled evening.
DAY SIX: Brown Butter Bourbon Cookie is pictured here with some cookies that are definitely not of the brown butter and bourbon variety, but they made a good stunt double, I guess. No matter! This is the butterscotch puddingest butterscotch custard tart. That complex, decadent ambery-vanilla-toasty-malty-creamy-oddly-pineapple-y butterscotch fragrance present even in the most humble of lunchbox pudding cups, poured into the butteriest, flakiest, crust and baked in a 350 oven to caramel-colored perfection.
DAY SEVEN: From the Gingerbread Cotillion offerings, I anointed myself with Gingerbread, Honey Dust, and Vanilla Bean. Tempted beyond measure by the extreme creamy-vanilla-sandalwood deliciousness radiating from my wrists, I gobbled them up immediately like the limbs of so many tasty gingerbread boys and now I am typing this missive with disembodied hands and phantom carpal tunnel issues.
Three-quarters of the way through a piece of writing is, I’m sure they’ll tell me, no place for an introduction but it’s 2020 and what are literary rules, anyway? What are words, even? It’s all made-up nonsense, and in light of that I’ll do what I want. I initially shared these Twelve Days Of BPAL in my instagram stories, and in between now and then I lost some of the images. So at this point, we are switching to what they call in the industry*, “just making shit up.” Ok, intro over.
*some industry? probably?
I suppose I am predisposed to love any scent inspired by the words of Yosa Buson, one of the greatest Edo-era poets, and The Moon’s My Own, which reads:
Miles of frost –
On the lake
The moon’s my own
…translates to a perfumed poem that is, in my estimation,
earthbound and bitter–
and starlight, sharp, clear, and bright.
moonbeams, in between.
I Hear You Call, Pine Tree, also inspired by a Japanese poet, but one with which I am not familiar is a briskly astringent energizing pine that dissipates after a moment on your skin, and you are left with the softest, loveliest watery blossoms and soothing, gentle rains.
DAY 10: Peacock Queen a blood-red, voluptuous rose, velvet-petaled, at the height of bloom.
I know I’ve said it before, but I really struggle with roses. Dead Mom issues and all that. I’ve got a convoluted matryoshka tangle-stack of nested baggage attached to the scent of a rose. But I try to stay open-minded, and more importantly, I think, I try to keep my heart open to the fragrance of these lush, symbolic blooms. Peacock Queen is a velvety rose, heady but not overripe, restrained elegance and refinement that suggests high necklines and legs crossed at the ankles but also which cannot resist a glimpse at itself when it walks past a mirror and is always exceptionally pleased with the exquisite vision reflected back. As the scent fades, it becomes a sumptuous silk cushion filled with countless bouquets worth of such beauties.
DAY 11: Black Ice chilly white sleet-like notes with a hint of vetiver, a breath of smoky asphalt, and winter wind
This is a Yule scent that’s been around in some form or another since 2005 and it’s the first time I’m smelling it! That’s pretty exciting, but what’s more thrilling is how much I desperately love it. An icy, smoky floral that calls to mind less a vision and more a sensation, of the throb and thrum of deep sleep brain waves and the nocturnal cerebral meditations of 2am shadows. This is utterly, breathtakingly gorgeous and I think it has become my new bedtime fragrance.
In 2007-2008 or so, I was pretty wretched. Lonely and bitter and frightened and terribly, terribly sad all of the time. And so cold! I wasn’t used to winters at all and I found myself in a place that felt like the frigid shivers of an eternal February. However, amidst these wintry melancholies I connected with some wonderful internet friends and so I cannot regret a single second of it.
One of those friends– a dear, clever, deeply kindred soul–shared a recipe with me over the course of one of those winters. I will never forget how useful it made my hands feel, to mix and knead that dough, how it awoke my languishing senses with its fragrance of delicate, floral spices wafting through that strange chilly house that never quite felt like a home, how it warmed my heart at a time when my heart felt so desperately trapped under a frozen Raritan river’s worth of ice. Coffee Bean, Cardamom, & Vanilla Pod brought rushing back those memories of my first time attempting to make Finnish Pulla, a subtly sweet, cardamom laced, yeasted bread braid, brushed with strong, black coffee and sprinkled with coarse sugar. I remain immensely grateful for both the recipe and to an even greater extent, the friend.
The Black Phoenix Alchemy Yule collection of midwinter perfumes are currently live and available for purchase. As this is a limited edition series, sample sizes imps are not available for Yule 2020.