14 Unexpected Holiday Candles That Don’t Smell Anything Like Christmas Trees or Gingerbread Houses

Photo: Getty Images/ Alexandr Kolesnikov
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A few things are certain about the holidays: There will be people who have their Christmas music cued up and ready to go the day after Thanksgiving; You’ll receive at least one gift you don’t want; There will be no shortage of festive candles burning. Unless you’ve got Grinch vibes going on, you know exactly the kind of candles we’re talking about—those tried-and-true holiday scents that you can almost smell the minute you start thinking about them. We’re talking fresh pine, spicy gingerbread, and maybe something peppermint for good measure.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these traditional scents, and for many people, these are the smells that they associate with holiday cheer and spending time with loved ones. But this season, some candle brands are making a case for switching things up—and the results have brought some pretty fun and unexpected pairings.

To break down the inspo behind a few of these non-traditional home fragrances, we spoke to experts from some of our favorite cool-kid candle brands, like Otherland, D.S. & Durga, and Anecdote. Read on to find out more about the next generation of holiday scents that smell nothing like your standard Christmas tree.

Inspiration strikes from real life

For brands re-imagining holiday fragrances, drawing from personal experience is key. “We like our products to be a reflection of both memories and moments,” says Julie Maskulka, CEO and founder of Anecdote Candles. “Memories lend themselves to nostalgic scents while moments can be those simple pleasures we take for granted.”

For example, Otherland’s Gilded Collection (one of its two holiday lines for this year) includes candles that take Abigail Stone, the brand’s co-founder and CEO, back to the fancy, “larger than life” Christmas parties her mom’s boss hosted throughout her childhood. Moonstruck has notes of white mahogany and smoked birch that remind her of sneaking out of the party for a breath of fresh air,” while Black Velvet was inspired by the black-tie dress code and combines alpine violet, iris woods, and night-blooming jasmine in a way that feels reminiscent of “sipping on a French 75 and swirling around the dance floor as the big band plays.”

Similarly, David Moltz, co-founder of D.S. & Durga, crafted the brand’s new-to-2022 Lightable Latkes candle based on his family’s Hanukkah traditions. “The smell of frying latke is the smell of the season for us,” he says. He adds that the reason the scent works so well as a candle is because when you light it, there’s the natural mix of fire with the notes of potato that makes it feel authentic to the actual smell of latkes being cooked.

With all of these next-gen scent blends, the trick is in translating memories in a way that captures the way they feel without being too obvious. For instance, Anecdote’s Mistletoe candle doesn’t contain a single note of actual mistletoe. Instead, it’s “a rich, layered fragrance with notes of apple, saffron, black currant, and amber, that’s meant to capture the festive nature of the mistletoe tradition.”

What comes first, the name or the candle?

Much like the chicken and the egg, there’s no real answer here.

“The name always, always, always comes first,” says Maskulka of Anecdote's processes. Her brand is unique in that each candle has a name, but also an anecdote below it. For example, the label for Snow Day reads “smells like a change of plans and a cup of cocoa.” So, the team starts with a name, decides on the accompanying anecdote, and then crafts a fragrance that best fits the feeling and mood that they evoke.

On the contrary, Cook Stone has a strict process where “scent informs name,” which means that Otherland candles don’t get their names until their in the final stages of formulation. At that point, it’s a group activity with her team where everyone shares their ideas, ultimately landing on one that everyone feels best embodies the fragrance. That’s not to say it’s easy, though: “There’s rarely alignment on one name, so we have to debate them all,” she says. And you’ll notice that each candle has two words in the name and three scent descriptors (instead of the typical base, middle and top notes)—this is a brand decision that keeps everything as clear and concise as possible for customers.

Moltz likes to mix it up and says, “usually I’ll have the idea [for the scent] first and then I’ll just tighten up the name perfectly.” He adds that sometimes it works the other way around, but that ultimately, the name is just meant to represent what the scent is.

Shop our favorite unexpected holiday candles

Anecdote Candles, Spiked & Spiced — $34.00

This warming blend of spicy clove, mulled wine, orange, red currant and cinnamon that has the power to transport you to an outdoor holiday market as the snow begins to fall.

D.S. & Durga, Portable X-Mas Tree — $65.00

For the brand’s third iteration of this seasonal candle, you get more than just balsam fir. There are also notes of clove water, spruce, amber, and Austrian pine, which come together to create an aroma that screams, “I’m not your basic Christmas tree scent.”

Otherland, Alpine Crystal — $36.00

For a surprising twist on a candle you might expect to smell like snowy pine trees, this one has notes of juniper sprig, icy tonic, and lemon fizz that make for a delightfully zingy blend that’s more about a drink than the great outdoors.

Heretic, Dirty Santa Candle — $65.00

Heretic is known for its tongue-in-cheek fragrances (… like Gwyneth Paltrow’s “This Smells Like My Vagina” candle), and this seductive combo of pine, warm clove, oakmoss, and leather deserves a place on Santa’s naughty list. And yes—we mean that as a compliment.

Candier, I'm Dreamin of a Pink Christmas — $31.00

Red and green can be a little overdone this time of year, but pink? Now that’s a welcomed twist. This unexpected scent combines yummy buttercream, angel cake, and a splash of bourbon for a drool-inducing (but not-too-sweet) aroma.

Hotel Lobby, Chalet Candle — $56.00

If being whisked off to Aspen isn’t in the cards for you this holiday season, you can have a little taste of the good life by way of this boujee burner. The lingering scent of spiced cinnamon, bergamot and amber will warm your home long after the candle is blown out.

Lavune, Ember Candle — $42.00

It wouldn’t be the holidays without having the yule log on loop. Even if you don’t have a fireplace of your very own, this woody candle brings the smell of one right into your living room. Crackling fire mode: activated.

Chillhouse, Cashmere Cafe — $38.00

Although not technically a holiday blend, this candle has notes of bright rhubarb, cassis, cedar, and sandalwood that are meant to be reminiscent of ducking into a chic Soho bakery for a treat. For us, it summons the cozy feeling of being wrapped in a new cashmere blanket while eating leftover Christmas cookies.

Brooklyn Candle Studio, Vert Deco Holiday Edition Candle Prosecco — $39.00

You may be gearing up for dry January, but that doesn’t mean your sense of smell needs to be sober, too. This cocktail-inspired blend taps notes of wild roses, red berries, and white musk, and is so luxuriant you’ll want to keep lighting it well into 2023.

FORVR Mood, Burr Candle — $38.00

This candle is all about wanting something hot to warm you up during the cold-weather months. Jackie Aina, the founder of the brand, says its oud-forward fragrance feels like cozying up at a cabin in the woods.

Snif, Old Saint Wick — $44.00

We present to you, an elevated Christmas tree, if you will. Thanks to notes of sandalwood, apple blossom, rosemary, and jasmine (with Siberian pine, fir balsam, and cedarwood for good measure), your home will smell like a freshly cut fir on display in a chic ski chalet.

Nest, Crystallized Ginger & Vanilla Bean — $46.00

If you’re craving the nostalgic aroma of your grandma’s baking, you’ll love this gourmand combo of ginger and vanilla bean. It’s a crowd-pleasing scent that makes for a great stocking stuffer.

Diptyque, Etincelles Spark Candle — $84.00

For a delightful take on a wood fire, this candle incorporates rich chocolate and bold coffee. Plus, the gold-flecked vessel looks decadent as the red wax melts inside.

Common Heir & Everything Nice Holiday Candle — $68.00

This candle is the definition of subtle. It swaps overzealous balsam scents with warm cardamom and sandalwood, giving it cozy, homy vibe you can burn way past December. There’s also tonka bean and chestnut that give it a touch of sweetness and play off its spicyness.

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