Oh boy, I don’t know about y’all but it has been a year here at Maison Death/Scent. Beyond the daily assault of the news and global politics, these days I’ve been bogged down by delays in projects I’d hope to launch this year, and my mood has turned as foul as the weather. I personally find a respite in horror when I am a grump and this year’s gift guide is all about embracing the gloom of the winter months and finding joy even in the darkest of places. So here are some gift ideas for your grouchy relatives or for your inner misanthrope.
Make Christmas Haunted Again
When the sun sets at 3:00 and the weather is chilly and bleak, why not do what the Victorians did and curl up by the fire with a good ghost story. Prior to its commercialisation in the early 20th century Christmas was a pretty rowdy affair with lots of public drunkenness and heaps of ghosts. Dickens didn’t invent the Christmas ghost genre, nor was he the most prolific. In fact, most of the Christmas ghost-writers were women. Instead of three Time Lords teaching the rich to share, their ghosts were the products of burning crinolines, arsenic-laced wallpaper, and murderous husbands. Many spectres were also worried about inheritance, familial reputation, and making sure young Sally marries well. These stories were a funhouse mirror held up to society as it contemplated its moral accounting towards the end of the year.
In fact, the ghost story was such an essential part of the Yuletide experience that a Mr F. Anstey complained of the state of the Christmas ghost in his 1884 essay, “The Decay of the British Ghost” saying, “There was something thoroughly Christmassy, for example, about the witchlike old lady, with a horrible dead rouged face, who looked out of a tarnished mirror and gibbered malevolently at somebody, for the excellent reason that he chanced to be her descendant.”
Clearly, we moderns have been missing out, which is why Valancourt has collected some of the best and rarest Christmas ghost stories from Victorian periodicals. In fact, it has been so popular they have released three volumes of these antique tales. You will find popular authors of the day like Auther Conan Doyal and Elisabeth Gaskell alongside dozens of writers that published anonymously and whose work might have otherwise been lost.
The Ghosts of Christmas Baths
My kindred spirit in holiday misanthropy is clearly Hayley over at Paintbox Soapworks who has made a dark and dreary bath collection inspired by the Jerome K Jerome quote, “It is always Christmas Eve in a ghost story”. If doing even simple tasks seems nearly imposable in the snow and cold, just say f#$k it. Go relax in a hot inky bath of Winter Stories. Each tendril of steam rising from the water brings with it the redolence of a stiff builder’s tea (the kind you could stand a spoon up in), splashes of spiced rum, and Scottish shortbreads. Just as you drift into a dreamland of Anglophile bliss, there is the slight kick of coal dust. As if you’ve drifted asleep in your tub to find an unknown and unbidden hand has left a smudge on your cheek.
I highly recommend both the Sorbetto Sugar Scrub to sluff away dry winter skin and the moisturising Bath Streusel. Plus look at the little spectral soap, he is so cute, he wants to come home with you and haunt your bathroom.
The Game for Gently Reminding Your Relavties They Are All Going To Die…One Day
In my house, Day 4 of any family visit is the toughest. You are no longer riding high on reconnecting with people you haven’t seen in a year, you’ve burned through the nostalgia, and everyone is just a little bit irritable from the cramped sleeping arrangements. This is usually the time someone says, “We should play a game!”. That game is often Monopoly, which is the literal worst game ever. Every single game of Monopoly in the McBride household has ended with the board being flipped and curses of eternal enmity being invoked between blood brothers. [see video below for tonal reference if you grew up in a stable family where people didn’t lose it over not being the thimble]
But friends there is a game that does not lead to fights or teaching kids land speculation. It is a game where you can have a giggle, talk about death in a non-scary way and actually impress your family with all of your death facts. It is a game that will give you the joy of watching your racist Uncle Ted slowly start to realises his own mortality over chips and dip. Morbid Curiosity is that game! It is a well-balanced party game, that moves at a good pace, is full of both trivia and open-ended questions that spur engagement in a fun and funny way. Nothing says, “I’m meeting you where you are” to your goth teen like putting this in their stocking.
Everyone Sucks But You
Sometimes everyone and everything is terrible but that one person. Maybe they are your partner, your family member, or just a friend, but they are your person. Home is rarely in a building, home is in people. A fire in the hearth or baking cookies are nothing without the hands that stoked the flames and made the dough. These scents are just the olfactive markers of love and care. Another Kiss by the Fireside by 4160 Tuesdays is the smell of your person, the one person that doesn’t suck on an awful damp afternoon when everyone else does. It is the smell of dried lavender hanging from the rafters and boots drying by a bot bellied stove; of cookies in the oven, and the scent of your person’s hair as they wrap you in a hug. To me, this is the smell of refuge, and I like this new iteration better than the original Kiss by the Fireside.
The Candle of a Dead Man
While everyone and their mother seems to have a book or library scented candle these days, what I love about Paddywax’s Library Collection is that the scents are evocative of the writers themselves. They are influenced by their works, locations of their stories and the author’s personal style.
I like to think of them as dead people candles and what better dead person to scent your home with this dark and stormy December then Charles Dickens. The Dickens candle is available in three different sizes with charming packaging. It is an invocation of a grand old Douglas fir tree strung with gingerbread men and dried tangerines. In short, it smells like a Victorian living room on Christmas eve. This would be an excellent gift for the office holiday swap. It’s lovely, reasonably priced, a general enough crowd-pleaser, plus you get to write “Here is the candle of a dead man. Happy Christmas” in the card. That is worth the price right there.
France has the Best Monsters
This list has been strangely Anglo-centric, that wasn’t intentional. What can I say, the English embrace the gloom better than anyone, but let’s end the gift guide on the continent with the art of Camille Renversade. You have probably seen some of Camille’s fantastical anatomical drawings on Facebook, like the digestive system of Melusine or the metamorphosis of the Wolf Man. I love the Melusine piece, not only as a potential warning to an imprudent lover to not disturb me while I am in the bath, but also its reference to Deyrolle pedagogical charts. For anyone that attended a francophone school of a certain age, Deyrolle is deeply nostalgic. The company was this odd mix of taxidermist, naturalist, oddities dealer, and science educator. Deyrolle started making these black dowelled classroom charts in 1871, and they now cover everything from botany to renewable energy. However, they still are significant dealers in the art and taxidermy world.
Like Deyrolle, Renversade’s shop mixes science and art with a whimsical twist that manages to capture the wonder of the 21st-century audience the way Deyrolle captured the audience of the 19th. Some other artefacts that may attract the curious are this charming dossier, The Fantastic Herbarium, Research on Strange and Yet True Botany or perhaps there many oddities gift sets. Nothing says I love you like a jar of Basilic liver jelly and a bezoar.
So that is our 2019 gift guide, besides all my moaning I want to thank our dear readers for another wonderful year. Every year our audience has doubled from the year before, which is both humbling and terrifying. I am deeply grateful that you’ve enjoyed our little dog and pony show and I can’t wait to show you what 2020 will bring.
Happy Holidays, Stay Spooky