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  • Lily Bradbar

Cruelty-Free Christmas Perfumes for Modern-Day Martha May Whoviers and Subdued Cindy-Lou Whos

Updated: Jan 8

A still from the 2000 film The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. It shows Martha May Whovier glancing upward as if in awe. Photoshopped in front of her are four of the perfumes featured in the article.

If you've been covering your ears during those first few spins of Mariah's 'All I Want for Christmas Is You', you're all out of luck. Like it or not, the time has come to either surrender to the silly season or study the chaos from a detached — maybe even a little disenchanted — vantage.

Whether you're the brightest house on the street or unsure if the tinsel is even worth untangling, there's something special about perfume's ability to disarm us, to make us give in to a little childlike sentimentality. Memory can anchor itself so deeply in a well-composed scent. I know first hand how the right scent at the right moment can turn the most bah-humbug of spirits into an afternoon spent stocking up on cranberries and gift wrap and admiring the lights on the drive home.

Scoping out the most nostalgic, 'Christmassy' scents has become a bit of a tradition for me these last few years. There's something so joyous about having a few bottles of olfactory tinsel set aside, like a box of ornaments or a festive playlist, strictly for use during December (or wherever you draw the line). So, from a modern-day Martha May Whovier to you, wherever you are on the Who-ville-to-Mount-Crumpet spectrum, here's a list of what I'd recommend and for whom. Think of it as a fragrant Choose Your Own Adventure if shopping for yourself or a fun way to join the dots from perfume to personality if shopping for someone else.

For the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it stickler for tradition (from the Northern Hemisphere):

Après by Ellis Brooklyn

A photo of Après by Ellis Brooklyn. Behind it, I Photoshopped in some snow-covered branches and juniper berries.

I originally had Fille en Aiguilles by Serge Lutens here, only to discover its availability is a bit precarious right now. Nevertheless, I found an utterly delightful (not to mention cheaper) alternative in Ellis Brooklyn's Après. If anything, the search for a substitute was quite serendipitous. While I stand by the scrumptiousness of Fille en Aiguilles, Serge Lutens' perfumes have a tendency toward the heavy and opulent, making them a riskier option for the scent sensitive. By comparison, Ellis Brooklyn's Après is exceedingly cuddly and approachable. This approachability is attributable, I believe, to notes of juniper berry and violet that lend a lightness to the composition without sacrificing the sweet, resinous warmth of cedar and conifer. While there are fruity notes in Lutens' fragrance, the effect is akin to the sticky richness of a Christmas pudding. Après, on the other hand, is reminiscent of a late-fall, early-winter picnic spent admiring the natural beauty of a coniferous forest. It's the fragrant equivalent to the feel-good cheer of a wholesome Christmas classic, like 1954's White Christmas or 2006's The Holiday. It's also, like Fille en Aiguilles, a gender-neutral scent. Consider this a safe bet for a no-frills kind of person who prefers their Christmas music on vinyl and their Christmas tales by Dickens.

For the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it stickler for tradition (from the Southern Hemisphere):

Black Heart v.2 by Map of the Heart

A photo of Black Heart v.2 Photoshopped in front of a photo taken by the brand owner of the land near her property after bushfire season.
Background adapted from an image on the brand's website.

Growing up in Australia has always meant that even if I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, the aircon is cranked up, and I'm still sweating. As such, while a fragrance called Black Heart might not, for most, conjure holly-jolly images of decorating the Christmas tree, this is exactly what Christmas smells like to me.

With the close proximity of Christmas and bushfire season, the joy of seeing family is often undercut by nervous glances to a smouldering horizon. In this release from the Australian perfume company Map of the Heart, we see this tension manifest in the juxtaposition of luminous notes of bergamot and eucalyptus against a smoky, ominous base of burnt wood and black pepper. More than being a true-to-life portrait of Australian flora this time of year, the composition of the fragrance has a certain psychological resonance to it: the joy of time spent with loved ones undercut by the precarity of natural disaster. The regenerative nature of Australian bushland, reflected here in the aromatic crispness of eucalyptus, adds a note of hope, reminding us of our communal capacity to adapt and endure.

These were all my own observations about this fragrance, but, unsurprisingly, this fragrance's portrait of hope in dark times was very much by design. In fact, the starting point for its composition was a photo of blackened trees brand co-owner, Sarah Manara, took after the devastating effects of the bushfires on the land surrounding her property in New South Wales, where I also live. (I included this photo behind the bottle in the banner for this review for those interested.) An excerpt from a branded post about the perfume even reads: 'The sunlight filters through the black burned trees of eucalyptus. The silver ash is like a summer snow — creating a surreal dimension. The light invites you to discover more, the dark can fascinate or reject you.'

'But does it smell okay?' I hear you asking. The answer is yes. Why else would I recommend it, silly? While the play on light and dark provides an interesting backstory for the fragrance, it is the balance of these elements that allows an elegant polyphony to emerge. It's not too dark or too light. It has the Goldilocks' just-right seal of approval. Also, look at the bottle and the luxe red-and-black box it comes in and tell me it wouldn't make a stunning present:

A photo of Black Heart v.2 in the luxe black-and-red box it is packaged in.

The company does not segregate its range by gender, declaring on their website that '[y]ou decide what to wear'. Still, for those wanting some sort of indication, I would say this fragrance skews traditionally masculine but could pass just fine for either a women's or a men's fragrance. It's the sort of intriguing and mysterious scent I could imagine smelling on Cher, Idris Elba, and Violet Chachki alike. Smoky and spicey does not discriminate.

For those who get a bit too silly this season:

Jungle by Kenzo

Jungle by Kenzo Photoshopped in front of cinnamon sticks, frangipanis, and orange slices.

If you know you're at the right house because you could recognise this person's drunken laughter from three blocks away, Jungle by Kenzo is the fragrance for them. Like loud, drunken laughter, this eruption of spice and citrus fills a room without a single apology. It may be a little polarising, and wallflowers may even resent it a little, but after a few minutes spent in the warm, unpretentious embrace of this cosy little number, no one could leave without loving it at least a little.

Unfortunately, this fragrance isn't cruelty free, which is why I use this dupe from Palermo. Eden Perfumes also do a dupe, but I have not tried it. If you have a soft spot for metallic elephants, empty bottles are a dime-a-dozen on eBay, making it easy to decant your dupes into the original packaging. (Yah, I am that weirdo who orders finished bottles from eBay for ~ aesthetic ~ purposes.)

The fragrance is marketed for women, but there are fragrances marketed for men, like Rabanne's 1 Million or Gaultier's Le Male, that are, in my view, more traditionally feminine than this. Still, there is a men's version with the same exuberant spirit that has also been duped by Palermo.

For the let's-say-grace evangelist:

Frankincense and Myrrh by Kuumba Made or Honour by Amouage

Frankincense and Myrhh by Kuumba Made and Honour by Amouage Photoshopped in front of a strained glass window and some prayer candles.

While I am not religious myself, I do not wish to overlook the religious significance of Christmas. After all, Christ is in the name of the holiday, and the birth of Jesus — an enduring symbol of love and grace — continues to add meaning and purpose to the lives of many to this day. If you're the sort of person who wants to move away from hollow consumerism toward traditions that emphasise the religious origins of Christmas tradition, fragrance offers an opportunity for a one-time investment you can return to year after year. I still have bottles of perfume that my mum bought in the 80s. Moreover, and as already mentioned, I set aside festive perfumes at the end of each Christmas the same way I set aside my wreath and other ornaments. The right fragrance may be a reminder you can return to each year of what Christmas means to you — and what Christmas meant to you all the other Decembers accompanied by its olfactory presence.

The right perfume for this particular use is obviously whichever resonates the most with you and your relationship with God. As such, my suggestions are just that. Still, I think it could potentially be meaningful to use a perfume based on frankincense and myrrh — resins that were gifted to Christ due to their ceremonial prestige. Both of these resins are still used in prayer candles to this day.

My first recommendation here is from Kuumba Made. As the simple name suggests, this fragrant oil uses an uncomplicated blend of natural oils that give you an unfiltered representation of the dark, balsamic beauty of both resins. A word of warning: those unaccustomed to heavier traditional perfumes might be put off by the heady projection of these ingredients, but a light hand can help them to become suitable for day-to-day wear. They might also offer a richer base for a more contemporary perfume you enjoy. Or maybe you're like me and don't care if your neighbours down the road can tell you're wearing perfume. Whatever the case, if the religious significance of these resins appeals to you, there definitely are ways to make the workable. While perusing Kuumba’s site, I even stumbled upon a review noting that this particular blend 'reminds me of my Saviour'.

An alternative recommendation is Honour by Amouage, which includes both frankincense and myrhh, but softens the intensity of these ingredients with a velvety bouquet of white flowers, including gardenia, jasmine, and lily of the valley. This fragrance is one you'll be able to hold on to for years. There is a timelessness to the delicate arrangement of the floral and resinous ingredients. It has the lightness and softness you would expect from a youthful perfume without losing the grace and sophistication one often desires in maturity. The resinous ingredients, I believe, are a contributing factor here, offering a warmth and strength to what remains a primarily floral, gently feminine fragrance.

Unfortunately, the cruelty free status of Amouage is contested. For this reason, I recommend this dupe from Palermo. It needs a couple more minutes to settle on your skin, but, with a little patience, the play of light and dark that makes Honour such a classic will become apparent (albeit with slightly less force). If Palermo doesn't ship to your area, Shobi also do a dupe, but I have not tried it myself, so I cannot speak to the success of their interpretation.

For those who kneel at the altar of Bath and Body Works' seasonal releases:

Sweet by Lolita Lempicka

A photo of Lolita Lempicka Photoshopped in front of a squirrel foraging around in the snow. Some chocolate and cherries are Photoshopped beside the squirrel.

As a cruelty-free perfume shopper, Lolita Lempicka is a personal favourite of mine. One of the downsides of purchasing popular cruelty-free scents is having to miss out on the creative packaging used by many of the major perfume brands. Not only do Lolita Lempicka allow me to enjoy popular fragrances from a major brand without compromising my ethics, they also have some of the most consistently whimsical packaging on the market.

In line with the brand's fairytale aesthetic, Sweet is a Hansel-and-Gretel kind of perfume that pairs a dominant cherry note with a generous hit of chocolate. The subtle earthiness of angelica and the muskiness of cashmeran save the fragrance from becoming cloying, but it never aspires to be a 'grown-up' scent. While Lolita Lempicka's other perfumes temper their ingenue charm with more sophisticated elements, Sweet leans into the unpretentious appeal of the sugary sweetness that gives it its name. This perfume is not for the sort of person who turns their nose up at a sale at Bath and Body Works. If you’re someone who sees Christmas as the time of the year to shed your ego and embrace the simple pleasures of candy, kitsch ornaments, and four-chord ditties, you may just love this perfume every bit as much as I do.

For the Yuletide Moon God(dess):

Mississippi Medicine by DS&Durga

A promotional image of Mississippi Medicine by DS&Durga. The perfume bottle is placed in the midle of a pentacle with candles surrounding its circumference.
Promotional image from the brand's website.

For those with a more spiritual than religious relationship with the world, Mississippi Medicine by DS&Durga offers a moody, evocative celebration of the smoky, coniferous smells that characterise this time of the year. This is Après by Ellis Brooklyn for those who like their winter-hushed forests a little more gothic and haunted. While the fragrance is inspired by — and I quote — 'the rituals of the proto-Mississippian death cult of the 1200', you don't need to slay (or sleigh) in order to wear this. (Both are, of course, totally valid options.) The fragrance is a bit edgier and more challenging than most mainstream releases, but it's by no means the sort of thing you'll lose your job over. To my mind, the composition's willingness to embrace some of the rougher edges of the winter wilderness is precisely what makes it so comforting. It is not a sparkly, staged idea of the yuletide season; it is a warts-and-all representation of it. Think firewood, flowerless fields, bitter fruit, and bark made brittle by an unrelenting wind. The perfume sits close to the skin, so, in this sense, it is also a true-to-nature representation of wood itself: not noticeable from afar, but intoxicating up close. It is marketed as a men's fragrance, but as someone who wears lipstick to get bread, I promise you don't need a testosterone injection to pull it off. At the same time: I have specifically asked my boyfriend to wear this because there's something sexy about the harsh elements that I'll never completely understand.

For the Summer Solstice Sun God(dess):

Tahitian Gardenia by Pacifica or Måd by ånd Fragrances

A photo of Tahitian Gardenia and  Måd by ånd Fragrances. They have been Photoshopped on top of a photo of gardenias and orchids with yellow and blue paint splatters.

As much as I love seeing silly jumpers and snowy cypresses in my December film selections, I have, over the years, grown to see the bashful glow of early summer as every bit as joyous and festive as the season of the snowman. If, like me, the pleasure you derive from this time of the year is not rooted in a Christian affiliation, the fragrance for you might be one that simply celebrates the natural beauty of the season.

One of the quirks of Christmas in the southern hemisphere is feeling sentimental over things you rarely, if ever, hear about in carols, like the sound of cicadas or the Pacific koel. For me, I always know Christmas is on its way when the distinct fragrance of gardenia and star jasmine lend their light to my evening jogs. It is for this reason that Pacifica's Tahitian Gardenia is possibly one of the most unexpectedly festive fragrances for me. While numerous perfumes market themselves as containing notes of gardenia, these notes usually take the form of an indolic gesture toward white flowers that lack the honeyed greenness that makes gardenia so unique. Through a blend of 'natural and essential oils', Pacifica allows the gardenia to present its idiosyncratic beauty without ornamentation. It is the only gardenia perfume I have smelled that reminds me of the shrub my grandmother grew in her backyard, offering a lush backdrop to Christmas lunch. The effect is very linear, but not every story needs a sequel to be worth telling. I have since heard others share that gardenia also reminds them, more than anything else, of this time of the year. If you’re one of these people, I cannot recommend this simple but stunning fragrance enough.

If summer solstice holds a spiritual significance to you that is removed from any affiliation with an institutionalised faith, I recommend Måd by ånd Fragrances. ånd Fragrances is a passion project of Simon Constantine, one half of the creative duo responsible for LUSH's fragrance line. Like LUSH's line, the emphasis is on showcasing the eclectic beauty of natural oils rather than softening them with the dependable performance of synthetics. As such, Måd is a sunshiny ode to madagascar vanilla featuring a pronounced accompaniment from jasmine and clove. The vanilla here is not the sort you might associate with marshmallow or gelato, but an earthier, gentler portrait of the bean that has been roughened up with the dustiness of vetiver. This perfume is for the person who passes through Nimbin on their way to visit family for some Christmas pudding with a funkier, more herbal streak. Nature is a quirky gal with quirky little gifts, and that's why we love her.

For the Christmas-is-at-mine merry mingler:

Cardamom Coffee by LUSH (Gorilla Perfumes)

A photo of Cardamom Coffee by LUSH Photoshopped on top of an image of some coffee beans and chai.

This one is for the friend or family member who will open their door (and oven and best wine) for anyone who wishes to drop in on Christmas day. Like most LUSH fragrances, the composition of Caradamom Coffee is not especially complex, but the natural oils used are so richly fragrant that any additional ingredients would only clutter what already shines. (The inherent complexity of natural extracts also makes the ingredient list look deceptively simple. After all, nature is the world's oldest chemist.) While notes of citrus and rose offer a glistening backdrop here, cardamom and coffee (and cocoa), unsurprisingly, play the lead roles. The presence of cardamom offers a sweet, spicy gesture toward Christmas pudding or German Christmas cookies while the coffee note embraces the full-bodied warmth of the dark roast you’ve grown to expect from the host(ess) with the mostest. This perfume is the furthest you can get from some slap-dash instant brew that begs you to keep your visit short. If you're in constant awe of someone's congeniality, what better way to show your appreciation than to return the favour with what can only be described as the toastiest, most enduring hug you can get in a bottle?

For the romanticise-the-moment Christmas flick binger:

Angel Muse by Thierry Mugler

A photo of Angel Muse Photoshopped as if floating through a galaxy made out of chocolate and popcorn.

One of my favourite parts of the holidays is finding a comfy spot on the lounge with a blanket and something decadent to eat so I can live vicariously through the broken and mended hearts immortalised in feel-good festive flicks like Love Actually, The Preacher’s Wife, and It’s a Wonderful Life. For those who like their Christmastime with as much sugar as sentimentality, Angel Muse is a holiday treat you can carry on your pulse points wherever you go. While Angel is possibly the most polarising of contemporary perfumes, this flanker mellows out the discordant patchouli-gourmand blend with top notes of grapefruit and a creamy heart of chocolate and hazelnut. The DNA of the original Angel remains, but the addition of citrus and Nutella works as a sort of connective tissue to bring the jarring contrast of the saccharine and the Sylvan into more of a harmonious relationship. It’s possibly still a bit too decadent and syrupy for some, but if you’ve got a sweet tooth, one bite can’t hurt.

Like some of the other major brands I have mentioned in this article, the cruelty-free status of Thierry Mugler is contestable. Thankfully, my Palermo dupe has served me well and received compliments from those who recognised its Mugler identity. I am also keen to check out this interpretation from Asēdos once money permits.

For the new (or familiar-but-still-fresh) love:

Green Lover by Lolita Lempicka

Green Lover by Lolita Lempicka Photoshopped in front of a lake with orange trees. A mint plant is partially visible in both of the bottom corners.

I tried to give as many companies, especially niche companies, their flowers with my selection for this article, but I really do have a soft spot for the Lolita Lempicka range. Green Lover, as its name implies, is a fragrance that seeks to place a botanical freshness centre stage with a strong hit of minty freshness punctuated with notes of gin that bear an amped-up juniper component. A dash of mandarin assists this sparkly, fresh impression while the drydown ushers in a vanilla note that adds warmth without weighing the composition down with anything too deep or smoky. Mint is an interesting fragrant ingredient because its impression of coldness is not only psychological but also physiological, with menthol acting upon cold-sensitive receptors within the skin. (This is why mint is so common in aftershave products.) By coupling this frosted green note with gourmand elements, this fragrance is, in many ways, akin to the traditional holiday gift of a candy cane. Consider this a longer lasting minty treat to gift to a new love or a familiar love that stays fresh. It is marketed as a masculine scent, but I'm a high-femme who would be delighted to receive this. We all have cold-sensitive receptors, so let it snow indiscriminately, honey.


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