On the Sunday before Christmas, it has become my custom to play a 30-minute prelude on the piano in our chapel before the start of church. The music, consisting of sacred carols from different countries, varies from year to year. A short printed program, providing some background information on each piece, is placed in the pews, and reverence is given renewed emphasis.
One of the pieces I played this past Christmas was Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing? a 17th century French carol about the Nativity of Christ and the calling of the shepherds to Bethlehem. It begins with this verse:
Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away?
Never the like did come a-blowing,
Shepherds, from flow’ry fields in May.
Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing,
Stealing our senses all away?
I am enchanted not only by the ethereal beauty of this hymn, but also by the questions embedded in its name that are left unanswered: Where is this fragrance coming from and where is it going? And what exactly is that smell and, more to the point, what is there about the birth of the Savior that could possibly appeal to our olfactory sense?
My quest to find a solution to this puzzle began with examining how various religions employ fragrances in their rituals and concluded with recent discoveries about the neurological and psychological impact our sense of smell can have on our memories and emotions.
Shortly after they escaped Egyptian bondage, Moses and his people were instructed to use incense, made of costly ingredients, in the wilderness Tabernacle:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy.
This pungent aroma served both practical and sacred purposes. Since it was often used in conjunction with animal sacrifice, it served to mask the unpleasant smell of burning flesh. It also was symbolic of prayer: “Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee.”
In addition, on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to perform the ritual sacrifice and commune with the Lord at “the mercy seat,” the sweet smoke obscured Jehovah, functioning as a symbolic barrier between the divine and man. Although Judaism no longer practices animal sacrifice, aromatic spices are still used in certain ceremonies, such as the havdalah marking the end of the Sabbath.
Incense, made from herbs, flowers and other natural substances, is used for multiple purposes in Buddhism. Apart from serving as a sacred offering to honor the Buddha, the ritual burning of incense sticks by worshipers reminds them of their need to correct negative personal qualities. Further, the beautiful aroma it produces spreads beyond them, just as their good works redound to the benefit of others. Additionally, it cleanses the atmosphere and inspires a follower to develop a “pure mind”—an objective also pursued in similar rituals performed by many Indian nations in the United States.
Tribal meetings and other gatherings where matters of pressing importance are to be discussed frequently begin with a “smudging ceremony” where the designated member of the tribe walks among those in attendance with a censer containing a burning plant, such as lavender, juniper, or sweet grass. The smoke emanating from the censer is wafted upon each attendee who inhales deeply for purposes of cleansing the soul and restoring balance. This ceremony is then followed by an invocation offered by a respected tribal elder who invokes the spirit of the Creator and prays that all those present will be of a “good mind” as they deliberate the matters before them.
The burning of herbs, such as sage, is also used by tribal religious leaders—such as shamans and medicine men—to heal the sick. The smoke is spread over the body of the infirm individual as a means of calming their spirit and augmenting their faith, not dissimilar to the function performed by consecrated oil in the health blessings of other faiths.
The neurological and behavioral impact of incense and fragrances in religious and other settings is often powerful and long lasting. According to Dr. Rachel Herz, a leading expert on the psychology of smell, the interconnection between our olfactory sense and our emotions is uniquely intimate. The areas of the brain that process smells and emotions “are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions in the brain could possibly be.” Both are situated in the limbic system and employ the same internal structure—the amygdala—to interact with each other.
This explains why memories triggered by odors and fragrances are often more evocative than those prompted by our other senses. Chinese culture has been cognizant of this phenomenon for centuries and has long utilized aroma to assist in the retelling of family histories and other stories. An ancient tradition common in many regions of the country is to pass around a small bowl containing incense or spices when extended families gathered to share oral histories. Later, when family members wish to recall a story in detail, together with its emotional impact, the same scent is passed around again.
With this background and understanding in mind, let’s return to the French carol Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing? and the questions it leaves unanswered. As to the source of the smell, subsequent verses suggest it is emanating from Bethlehem but offer no clue as to its ultimate destination. As to what this smell is, the only thing we are told is that it is unlike any smell previously encountered by the shepherds in these “flow’ry fields of May.”
While I cannot provide a definitive solution to this conundrum, a rabbinic legend recounted by Dr. Deborah Green, an expert in the field of Hebrew language and literature, allows me to advance a credible hypothesis.
Professor Green relates an apocryphal story of a young man whose cow was injured, prompting him to flee his family since, without the animal, he will no longer be able to contribute to their support. He ultimately finds his way, impoverished and emaciated, to the doorstep of Rabbi Yohann ben Zakkai where he commences his studies of the Torah.
But the other students soon complain to the teacher about the new arrival’s foul-smelling breath, a product of his appalling diet, which included eating clods of dirt. The Rabbi did not respond directly to these students but instead turned to his new pupil and said: “Just as the odor of your mouth caused you to smell bad for the sake of Torah, so will the fragrance of your learning go from one end of the world to the other.”
The Rabbi, through the adroit use of metaphor, sought to turn a bad odor into something not only positive, but also virtuous. As explained by Professor Green: The new student “may emit an offensive odor in pursuit of Torah, but once he has acquired knowledge and begins teaching, … he will emit a perfumed fragrance to which people will be drawn.” His “odor” will be blown abroad, attracting students to him, who will perpetuate the cycle by studying the scriptures and sharing their knowledge of God with others.
So, perhaps the source of that lovely fragrance the shepherds found so out of place in those flowering fields was a stable with all of its attendant barnyard aromas. Smells previously deemed repugnant and undesirable, would, once those sheepherders witnessed the miracle in the manger, spark the most powerful and evocative memories in their lives, ones undoubtedly influenced not only by what they saw but what they smelled that day. Those recollections, in turn, would serve as the first eyewitness testimonies of the birth of the Savior—testimonies the angels instructed them to share with others—and profoundly affect how the minds, emotions, and senses of countless generations would process and imagine the circumstances of Christ’s birth.
 Translation by A. B. Ramsay.
 Exodus 30:34-35 (KJV).
 Psalm 141:2 (JPS Tanakh 1917). When Zacharias performed his priestly duties of burning incense in the temple, “… the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” Luke 1:9-10 (ESV).
 Exodus 25:22 (KJV).
 Brettler, Marc Zvi, How to Read the Jewish Bible, pp. 78-79, Oxford University Press, 2005.
 Parry, Daren, The Bear River Massacre, p. 56, By Common Consent Press, 2019.
 Herz, Rachel, The Scent of Desire, p. 3, HarperCollins, 2007.
 The Scent of Desire, p. 80.
 Green, Deborah A., The Aroma of Righteousness, p. 1, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
 The Aroma of Righteousness, pp. 1-2.