Modern niche perfumery makes it easy for us. It must be like playing charades with the worldís slowest child. They supply us with all the visual and background cues and then sit back and do a slow clap when we get it. Ambre Russe? Mention vodka in the press materials and in one sniff we are mentally whisked away to boozy Cossacks, samovars, fur, and gold-gilded palaces. De Profundis? Give an essentially cheery floral perfume a gloomy name and a depressive back-story, and suddenly everyone makes the connection to death and funerals.
If we werenít supplied so readily with these cues, would we make those connections? Probably not. But letís admit that the back-story is half the fun of it. We are only human after all Ė we want everything we do to have meaning. Even if itís only our perfume.
Smell Caron Nuit de Noel in vintage parfum form, though, and everything you know about narrative is upended. It is a Wagnerian opera-sized perfume and we not handed so much as a leaflet. Oh yes, I forgot, they did give us that name Ė Nuit de Noel. But it doesnít smell like Christmas, so that doesnít help.
But this is what perfume smelled like once upon a time. A dense, powdered thing of mystery that doesnít really give a shit if you manage to unlock its layers or not. Itís so analog in a digital world that it makes me laugh.
Nuit de Noel doesnít really have traditional topnotes. In fact, itís a fragrance best worn for its basenotes, and is therefore the complete opposite to how perfumes are made these days - stuffed with amazing topnotes that last just long enough to get you over to the till to pay your money and petering out into one big fat nothing three hours later. Nuit de Noel, on the other hand, plunges you right into the second cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen and just trusts that you know enough German to get by. In a way, I appreciate that approach Ė by giving me very few cues, it expects me to have enough intelligence to figure it out on my own.
Iím still not sure Iíve figured Nuit de Noel out, though. I ainít that smart. But I like the challenge. The top notes are intense, like a wall of sound coming straight at you. Dense and unwieldy, it smells like bitter powder and polished old woods with a streak of green moss running through it. There is also a huge dose of the typically Caron carnation/clove accord, which I find bitter-leathery and spicy in equal measure. The overall impression I get is of being wrapped in an old fur coat Ė itís both old-fashioned and luxurious.
I donít get any of the Christmas associations, but there is a stage of its development where I sense both the mealy, fluffy meat of roasted chestnuts and a sweet, liquor-like rose. Perhaps itís that hint of rich fruited breads and baked goods that lead some to make the connection to Christmas. The green, mossy chypre notes also create a crisp, cold-air feeling, placing this perfume in the context of snow. Aside from the notes, there is a certain glow to this perfume - a radiant warmth like candlelight.
As time goes on, a licorice-like note creeps in, cloaking the fragrance in a velvety, sweet darkness. Think soft black licorice, not the challenging Danish stuff that tastes like salt. This note is a feature of the famous Mousse de Saxe, said to contain a heavy mixture of anise (or fennel seed), vanillin, geranium, and isobutyl quinoline (smoky, tough leather notes).
The Mousse de Saxe makes up a huge proportion of Nuit de Noel, and lends it its decisively dark green, mossy, smoky, and sweet flavor profile. A pre-packaged base, Mousse de Saxe is no longer made by Caron to the original recipe, although to their credit, they try to recreate it in order to keep their current parfums rich and full-bodied. But to my nose, there is a rich, dark, and melting softness to vintage Nuit de Noel (reminiscent of marrons glaces, as some have pointed out) that is just not there in the modern Carons.
The leather, powder, and geranium facets of the base connect Nuit de Noel to other hard-to-categorize fragrances like Habanita and Vol de Nuit. Part chypre, part oriental, all three of these fragrances are soft, boneless straddlers of several categories at once and contain a mystery of their very own that is difficult to unpack, to analyze. Mysterious and cool-toned, they leave behind a lingering impression of green moss, face powder, leather, and half-smoked cigarettes. The most slatternly women you could imagine, and the ones I most want to know.
Smelling Nuit de Noel parfum now a melancholic experience, though. Vol de Nuit and Habanita are still in good shape. But with oakmoss being severely restricted these days, the Caron bases can never smell as complex as they once did, and so when I smell my sample of vintage Nuit de Noel parfum, I realize that Iím essentially smelling the air from a time capsule.
A frame in time...
It's a freezing and dreary day. Not just every day however. It's Christmas Eve. And a proper one I might say, since there's a lot of snow around. And what's more, I got all lucky in my "thematic" shopping this morning. I stumbled upon a near mint antique bottle of Nuit de NoŽl in a flea market, complete with its jade shagreen case, tassel and stuff, and since I've always thought of it as one of the most elegant packagings ever made, I grabbed it without further ado. I guess that wishing it was full too, would be sort of pushing my luck.
With a solid piece of history in my coat's pocket, I think that having a couple of drinks while sniffing it wouldn't be such a bad idea on this cold winter day.
So, pretending that it's 1922, I enter an old bistrot in the city's most popular square, and order a glass of fine cognac.
From where I am, I can see a girl sitting on the stairs of a building's entrance, lying opposite to the bistrot's side windows.
A cascade of fiery red hair is bursting from her beanie.
She's like a torch burning in the snow...
She has placed her bag on the cold and wet marble and she's sitting on it. She holds a small paper bag in her hands and looks excited. I wonder what the cause of her exhilaration could be. I take a sip of my cognac and smile.
What she takes out of her small paper bag makes my heart miss a beat. I recognise the plain black-capped rectangular bottle. Or, to put it better, I recognise its label. She opens it and dabs a few drops on her wrists and on the sides of her neck. Now if this is not a coincidence, then it has to be fate signing at me.
Encouraged by the spirit of the day, I decide to be a little more daring than usual and find out which of the two.
"I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
Her amber eyes widen with surprise.
"Your Christmas Eve."
"What about it?"
I sway my bottle in front of her eyes.
"Hey! This has the same name, but it's so more beautiful and looks so old. What is it?"
"The grandmother of yours. Care to meet her?"
She accepts my offer for a drink. After all it's freezing outside.
"Oh my God... This is magical..."
Although the perfume is long gone, its soul is still lingering. And sometimes an echo can be louder than the sound itself.
She remains silent with her eyes closed for quite a while. Although I suspect where she might have been drifting, I ask her anyway.
"I was trying to imagine some of the hands that once held this bottle and some of the words that were whispered because of its content being worn. Anyway, my bus leaves in four hours. Can you stand me being ecstatic for this long, oh my noble stranger?"
"Noble stranger" is how we agreed calling each other, to maintain some of the mystery that is weaved with this special and magic day.
But in any case, I tell her that I could possibly stand her more likely for four years, if she could be that dramatic the whole time.
"OK, my turn now."
Although she has it dabbed also on her wrists, she lifts her hair, tilts her head, and invites me to sniff her neck. This upretentious and impulsive gesture warms my heart. But I guess this is what this girl is all about, warming people's hearts.
I go for the sniff, and...
I don't know if it's her gesture, the perfume itself, the surrounding festive atmosphere or any combination of them, but what I smell almost brings tears in my eyes.
I struggle not to kiss her neck, but it's my apparently cold nose tip that spares me the struggle, cause it touches her skin slightly and startles her a bit.
She steps back and sees my nearly teary eyes.
"Hey you dummy... Stop spoiling me! Do I smell that good?"
"You smell like the angels working in Heaven's pastry shop, while a forest wood fire is roaring in its fireplace..."
She won't stop giggling and laughing heartily for the whole three hours we'll spent together. She won't stop sniffing her wrists either. She looks so happy and carefree.
It's time for her to leave and catch her bus.
We walk outside and we stand for a while, staring at each other.
I don't know what to say.
She doesn't seem to know either.
She hesitates for a moment.
Then she leans towards me and with her frail hand tracing my cheek, her lips brush mine for an instant.
And by this fragile token of affection, I know that her scent will remain on me forever.
She turns her back and starts to walk away.
After a few steps she stops and turns her head back.
"I'm Maria!" she shouts, before vanishing in the crowd. I stand still among hundreds of people who are walking around me hastily. I light a cigarette and lean my back against a wall.
I close my eyes and try to imagine what she might be thinking when she went outside for a couple of minutes to buy a pack of cigarettes.
I close my eyes and try to imagine her surprise when she'll discover the flacon in her bag...
I hope you're happy beautiful Maria, wherever you are.
I never saw you grow old. I never saw you become distant. And you never saw me either.
Your icon remains immaculate in my mind, just like this little wonder that made our paths cross, that cold winter morning, 28 years ago.
Your laughter is still ringing in my ears.
And like a friendly and beloved ghost, you shall visit me once more this year, on the same day that I will allow myself a dab of the perfume that is you.
Forever young... Forever happy...
Forever my Maria from the Christmas of 1986.
My beautiful Maria of Nuit de NoŽl...
A vintage sample:
The top notes are delicious: jasmine and a balanced rose, with an overaching ylang ylang impression forming a great triad. A sweetness is present throughout the development of this scent, but is is never overly sweet, is never dominating and is never cloying.
In the drydown it leaves the floral side and a lovely and smooth sandal tone emerges, and later a wonderfully smoothly warm glowing amber takes the centre stage. It is here that the name makes sense; it is s bit like a winter day when passing the open door of a bakery, with warm air and the aroma of brioches in the air, with whiffs of spices added - a mild and gentle mossy note with olfactoric glimpses of cinnamon is present too.
The performance is outstanding, with moderate sillage, good projection and a sensational longevity of thirteen hours on my skin. This product is exceeding well blended of ingredients of the highest quality, and bears the hallmarks of a grand classic, a warm and comforting winter-cum-Noel scent without the usual festivity clichťs. 4.5
Genre: Woody Oriental
The contemporary Nuit de NoŽl is a sweet woody oriental scent with a floral heart and a hint of gourmand edibility. As sometimes happens with relatively rich, dense scents, Nuit de NoŽl effectively does without distinct top notes, and delves right into an accord of vanilla, spices, orange blossom, soft, creamy woods, and a bit of iris. Time brings out a rose note with a touch of the peculiar yeasty quality I smell in certain live Gallica and Damask roses. The resulting olfactory arrangement suggests flowers and baked goods, which I suppose is consistent with the holiday theme.
I sense a distant kinship with Vol de Nuit here, but Nuit de NoŽl in its present form is a sweeter and simpler scent, with less prominent iris and without the edge contributed by the Guerlainís galbanum and herbal green notes. In stark contrast to so many contemporary scents, Nuit de NoŽl actually gains power, depth, and nuance in its drydown. Itís at its best three or four hours after itís applied, when a beguiling animalic musk warms the unctuous vanilla, amber, and sandalwood base notes. Happily, the drydown lasts for hours, with persistent sillage and a firm but unobtrusive presence.
Thereís been much talk of decline in Caronís feminine scents since Luca Turin and Tanya Sanchez savaged most of the collection, but Nuit de NoŽl still smells to me like a quality fragrance. Itís comfortable and versatile, with a development that belies its comparatively neutral opening. Try this if youíve enjoyed classic woody orientals like Vol de Nuit, LíHeure Bleue, or Bois des őles.
21st June, 2014 (last edited: 22nd June, 2014)
When I first exposed myself to this scent, it was in the form of the original parfum strength - and I never smelled a viler scent in my life. Take a tweed coat and a fur coat and throw them on a bonfire and then inhale deeply. The very worst thing I'd ever smelled that came out of a bottle.
The reformulation that is now available is a much toned down affair - this is now just a "very nice chypre," the sort of thing you would give a beginner to sniff and wear to introduce him or her to the chypre scent. Neither bad nor good, just acceptable.
I never understood how the original sold - or how it got that absurd name - Xmas Night should smell like pine, leather, vanilla, berries - not like a bonfire gone wrong.
This is a review of the extrait.
I find it wonderful, a powdery chypre with a big shot of carnation and jasmine. The clove feels like an extension of the carnation, and the subtle woodiness (I would never have guessed it was supposed to be pine) feels like like a subtle woodiness that's part of the chypre structure.
Like many of the Caron extraits, Nuit De Noel has that specific temperamental quirk where the powder note is strong enough to knock out your nose almost instantly, so it's quite easy to put on too much and run around thinking you smell of lovely subtle flowers while unknowingly choking everyone around you with monumental sneezy powder sillage. I prefer to dab on a single drop. Then, the wonderful flowers and woody greens may be a bit more in the background, but the powdery old-school aldehydes give it a wonderful depth and I feel like I'm smelling the whole thing.