Amazing Christmas Chemistry

Christmas from a Chemistry Perspective

Win­ter is here at last! It’s time to dec­o­rate the tree, drink eggnog, and snug­gle un­der a blan­ket in front of the fire­place, sip­ping hot co­coa and nib­bling on gin­ger­bread. But have you ever won­dered about the se­duc­tive scent of pine, or why gin­ger­bread tastes as good as it does? Set­tle in – be­cause here we go.


The Christ­mas Aro­ma

To start, let’s talk about the smell of Christ­mas – it finds its way into your very soul. Can you feel it now?

The scent of Christ­mas trees doubtless­ly takes first place. It con­sists main­ly of al­pha- and beta-pinene, and also con­tains bornyl ac­etate, which are present in conif­er­ous trees’ sap and es­sen­tial oils. Pinenes are of­ten used to man­u­fac­ture per­fumed sub­stances such as ver­benone, which is used in per­fumes and aro­mather­a­py. Mean­while, bornyl ac­etate is used as a food ad­di­tive and aro­m­a­tiz­er in house­hold chem­i­cals.

Sec­ond – the aro­ma of fire­wood. It con­tains a count­less amount of air­borne or­gan­ic sub­stances. The main com­po­nents among these are gua­ia­col and sy­ringol – or­gan­ic com­pounds that form when tim­ber is heat­ed with­out ac­cess to oxy­gen. Sy­ringol cre­ates the warm, smokey bar­be­cue smell, while gua­ia­col is re­spon­si­ble for the taste. Both of these sub­stances are used as aro­m­a­tiz­ers to mim­ic the taste of “smoked meat.”

Christ­mas or­na­ments

Have you ever won­dered how or­na­ments are made to sparkle so bright­ly? Chem­istry has a role here too! Af­ter the glass is shaped, it is cov­ered with a so­lu­tion of sil­ver ions and glu­cose. Glu­cose re­duces sil­ver, which coats the glass with a thin re­flec­tive lay­er. They are then cov­ered with col­ored lac­quer.


Christ­mas pop­pers & crack­ers

How about those par­ty pop­pers and Christ­mas crack­ers? It would seem they couldn’t be sim­pler – a sharp pull yields a cloud of con­fet­ti! But what makes the con­fet­ti fly out of the tube?


Christ­mas crack­ers con­tain small amounts of ful­mi­nat­ing sil­ver, while par­ty pop­pers con­tain a mix­ture of red phos­pho­rus and potas­si­um chlo­rate. Fric­tion trig­gers their ex­plo­sion, which is strong enough to burst the wrap­per and cre­ate a ‘star­tling’ bang or show­er par­ty­go­ers with con­fet­ti. These toys are con­sid­ered rel­a­tive­ly safe, but don’t ever point them at peo­ple, pets, or flammable ob­jects.

Fire­works and sparklers

Fire­works and sparklers lend an es­pe­cial­ly fes­tive mood to any cel­e­bra­tion.

Fire­works can dif­fer slight­ly in com­po­si­tion, but their main com­po­nents are a py­rotech­ni­cal mix­ture made of an ox­i­diz­er and fuel, and the sub­stances that lend them their col­ors. Lithi­um and stron­tium make red, cal­ci­um makes or­ange, sodi­um makes yel­low, bar­i­um makes green, cop­per makes blue, ce­sium makes in­di­go, mag­ne­sium or alu­minum pow­ders make white, and iron makes gold.


Sparklers are one par­tic­u­lar kind of hand­held fire­work. They con­sist of an ox­i­diz­ing agent such as potas­si­um ni­trate, met­al shav­ings as fuel (of­ten alu­minum or mag­ne­sium), and sub­stances to bind the two (such as dex­trin).

When we raise a sparkler to fire, ni­trate de­com­pos­es, re­leas­ing oxy­gen. This oxy­gen and the oxy­gen in the air ox­i­dize the met­al shav­ings, which sparkle and pop as they burn.


Hol­ly and ivy

Have you al­ready hung a hol­ly wreath on your door? They’re usu­al­ly wo­ven of hol­ly and ivy, and here’s what these plants con­tain.


Hol­ly con­tains theo­bromine – a bit­ter-tast­ing sub­stance with caf­feine-like in­vig­o­rat­ing prop­er­ties. It can also be found in ca­cao beans. But don’t try tast­ing hol­ly berries – they’re poi­sonous.

And ivy con­tains fal­cari­nol – a com­plex or­gan­ic sub­stance with an­tibac­te­ri­al, an­ti­fun­gal, and an­ti­car­cino­genic prop­er­ties. But don’t touch! The fal­cari­nol in ivy can cause ir­ri­ta­tion to your skin.

Christ­mas desserts

When talk­ing about Christ­mas desserts, gin­ger­bread men and can­dy canes are prac­ti­cal­ly the first sweets that come to mind.

Gin­ger­bread men con­tain gin­gerol and zingerone. Gin­gerol is re­spon­si­ble for the fresh-gin­gery spice of a gin­ger cook­ie, while zingerone cre­ates the warm sweet­ness of pre­pared gin­ger. These sub­stances have found a wide range of ap­pli­ca­tions in the food in­dus­try as aro­m­a­tiz­ers, and also demon­strate po­ten­tial as sub­stances with an­tiox­i­diz­ing and an­ti­car­cino­genic prop­er­ties.


Can­dy canes con­tain main­ly sug­ar (or su­crose) and added men­thol. The sug­ar adds sweet­ness, while the men­thol cre­ates a feel­ing of cold in your mouth. Sim­ply put, men­thol ac­ti­vates the re­cep­tors that an­swer for cold sen­si­tiv­i­ty de­spite the lack of ac­tu­al change in tem­per­a­ture.