Aromatherapy Christmas craft project – pomander balls

Baki is learning about the Bubonic Plague in his Social Studies class, and came home talking about fleas and rats and doctors with beaks, so naturally the first thing that sprang to mind was pomander balls, especially with Christmas around the corner.

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Plague doctors wore masks with beak-like protrusions on them (you might be familiar with the Venetian “doctor” mask, which is quite similar to the one in this picture, if a bit more ominous). This was because the beak area could be stuffed with aromatic herbs; it was believed that sweet smells could ward off the disease. That’s where pomander balls enter the picture. (picture credit: Paul Furst (1608-1666), “Der Doctor Schabel von Rom”)

Every year at Christmas time we open up the boxes of Christmas ornaments and the same smell rises from them – oranges and clove, with faint scents of pine. This is the smell of Christmas to me, and it is mostly coming from the pomander balls in the boxes, some of them decades old.

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Pomander balls in the Middle Ages, when the Plague was a major health concern, were not actually made from oranges at all, but were pieces of jewelry with aromatic herbs inside. The name comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, meaning amber apple – ambergris was one of the sweet scents inserted in the lockets.

My mother said that she learned how to make pomander balls when she was in high school, but couldn’t get more specific than that. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, the clove studded oranges have made their appearance at the end of every year. In my mind they were synonymous with that time of year and I didn’t think much about it beyond that.

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Zanzibar (a small group of islands off the coast of Tanzania) was once known as “the Spice Isles” because they were the world’s largest producer of cloves. When Omani sultan Sayyid Said moved to Zanzibar, he decreed that every farmer plant three clove bushes for every coconut palm on their land. These trees formed the backbone of a major industry, and one that Zanzibar continues to be associated with (unlike the other major function that Zanzibar served at that time – a slave port).

Pomander balls in their present incarnation as clove studded oranges showed up in the 19th century; a gift of a pomander ball at that time was said to indicate “warmth of feeling.” Making pomander balls is pretty straightforward – just cover the orange with cloves. You want to leave a little space between them because the orange will shrink a bit as it dries, but not too much or it will look patchy and balding. When we set Baki to the task, though, it was about thirty seconds before he was complaining of sore fingers and declaring himself bored to death.

Then my mother had a wonderful idea.

“Why not use a fork?” she said.

I had on occasion used a toothpick to poke holes for the cloves , but by using a fork you make the holes and ensure even spacing. A dessert fork is best for the meticulous (me), a dinner fork for the underachiever (Baki).

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Although Baki got off to a slow start with pomander balls, he did come up with a very nice little trick – when making holes in the orange, place the first tine of the fork in the last hole that you made so that your spacing really will be robotically precise. 

In this manner, we were able to make our pomander balls in record time.

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And of course there is the added pleasure of the smell – cloves smell great, and there is something heartening about the smell of orange peels. Make one and see – and keep it for decades! It’ll still hold up, smelling of the Spice Isles and bringing a whiff of the Plague to your holidays.

Merry Christmas to all and sundry!

8 thoughts on “Aromatherapy Christmas craft project – pomander balls

  1. Merry Christmas to you and your family and your mother I enjoyed this article so much Thank u so much Please give your mom my regards Have a wonderful happy new year Jasmine Miami. Florida

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Siobhan, all my life I have been fascinated with that beaked character, but I never knew its background. Thanks for putting together your story!

    (We are having friends over for Christmas, and then we will drive to the bay area to spend some time with Martha’s mom, in an assisted living facility.)

  3. I remember my mother making these when I was a child. That was at least 60 years ago! Thank you for making me remember a good time from my childhood. Christmas is some time away, but I think I will remember that I want to make these this year. 🙂

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