Making Pomanders (or a Mess)



What’s a pomander?

An aromatic and pretty handmade Christmas ornament made from oranges and cloves.

Some background:

When I was a little Syd, I loved historical novels for children — well, I still do now that I am a big Syd!  I inhaled works by Leon Garfield, Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, and more. One that I especially enjoyed was The Wool-Pack by Cynthia Harnett.  It won the 1951 Carnegie Medal, and tells the story of Nicholas Fetterlock, a wool merchant’s son.  Who would have thought there was derring-do associated with woolens? Set in 1493, it’s a just fascinating tale for those interested in guilds and trades and daily life of the time. Reading it again as an adult (and writer), I groan a bit at the educational info dumps, but they still intrigue the research geek in me!

Nicholas is only twelve, but betrothed to Cecily, daughter of another merchant, in an arranged marriage. I still recall a scene where Nicholas is instructed to buy fairings– or presents — for Cecily and his mother while he and his father are at market.  The item he selected for Cecily is a pomander. Something about that caught my young imagination, and it’s that scene that stayed in my head for years.  To complete this calendar entry, I tracked down a copy to see if I remembered the scene aright.

And sure enough:

“This was a weighty business and required much thought.  In the end Nicholas chose for Mistress Fetterlock a set of silken tassels of different colours to mark the places in her prayer book.  For Cecily he picked a tiny pomander ball in fillagree silver, gilded on the outside.  It was intended to hold sweet-scented spices and there was a silver ring at the top by which it would hang from the girdle — a dainty toy, said Master Fetterlock with a smile, pleasing for a child and fitting for a woman.  Nicholas had chosen well.”

Something in here struck a chord for me — well done, Nicholas I thought.  How clever of you.  If only I could be so wise.

What Nicholas selected was something like this:

And Cecily could have looked like this:

Pomander is a linguistic smoosh (technical term!) of pomme d’ambre since originally it would have contained a ball of ambergris and spices.  The ball could also contain herbs and rose petals.  Ambergris sounds so pretty, but it’s actually a waxy secretion from whale intestines that they either poop or puke out. Ewww! About as bad as learning about musk origins!  If you’re a fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, you’ve probably read about this in The Far Side of the World.

Pomanders weren’t just early air-fresheners — they were intended to protect the wearer from disease.  Miasmas and noxious airs were thought to be disease transmitters, and strong scents or perfumes were believed to protect you from illnesses such as the plague.

Clove-studded oranges were a less-wealthy person’s pomander. I’ve seen them referred to as the poor person’s pomander, but to afford that many cloves and citrus in the Renaissance meant you were by no means poor!

As a kid, I was thrilled when I heard my grandmother had a pomander, but disappointed  to see it was a ball of pierced bone china painted with flowers.  By the twentieth century, they had become dressing table items that were filled with scented talcum powder.

In modern America, they seem to be a wedding decoration of balls of flowers — also known as kissing balls (which makes smutty Syd snigger!) or floral centerpieces.

In England though, and apparently in early America, a pomander is now an aromatic decoration for Christmas time based on the old “poor person’s” orange and clove.

I learned how to make these in primary school arts and crafts lessons — along with corn dollies and Dorset buttons.  So here’s an “old school” Christmas craft, and if I can make it you can — I’m famously inept.  You’ll see proof in my fantabulous how I made them photos!

You can either completely cover your oranges with cloves and put several in a pretty dish after they’ve dried, or you can leave a band clear of cloves so that you can loop around a ribbon and make a hanging ornament.

Stuff you’ll need:

A glass of something to drink — mine is port.
A thin-skinned unblemished orange. Some sources suggest using lemons, which are pretty, but their shape is trickier to work with especially if you plan on hanging them, and they’re less traditional.
A darning needle or toothpick. I use a plastic wool sewing needle.
A paper bag.
Whole cloves — 1 ounce — this can vary depending on how big your orange is and how densely you cover it.
Orris root powder — 2 ounces. This is a fixative / preservative made from iris roots and most health food stores that sell loose spices and herbs will have it. Note:  this means your orange ceases to be edible!
Cinnamon — about 2 tablespoons.
All Spice — about 2 tablespoons.
Nutmeg — about 2 tablespoons.
If you dislike a certain spice scent, leave it out, and add something you prefer or increase the quantity of the others. Make sure it’s a dry, powdery spice.
Some recipes add some powdered cloves as well.

If you want to make your pomander into a hanging ornament:
Masking tape or rubber bands.
Ribbon — roughly the same width or a little narrower as your masking tape / rubber bands.

Some dressmaking pins and / or glue.

Start with this step if you want a hanging ornament:

Take the masking tape or rubber bands and section off your orange into quarters along the vertical line from stem to bottom.

Begin here if you’re not making a hanging version. Take your needle or toothpick and start to prick out a pattern — if you have a good eye you can do swirls and so on — or simply fill in the sections with a grid.  Each hole should be about 1/8 inch apart.

Push a clove into each hole. I usually prick out a row, and then stick in the cloves rather than make all the punctures first. The easiest way to get started is to simply cover the orange as closely as you can.  It will shrink as it preserves and dries out so there’s no need to cram them in as the spacing will tighten up a little, but the more cloves, the better preserved it will be.

Here’s a version using rubber bands instead of masking tape. I covered this one a little more fully.

Keep going until your orange is covered in cloves — a naked pomander just isn’t decent!  (Sorry.)

Note:  I think my masking tape is too wide for this orange size which is why I started the rubber band one as well.

Now, mix your orris root powder and spices together in a dish.  Add your orange.

Roll your orange around in it until it is thoroughly coated.

Then, put your pomander in a paper bag (not plastic or anything airtight — it needs to dry out), and put somewhere dry and warm (not hot).

Once a day, take it out and shake gently.  Sift over a little more powder as needed.  The goal is to keep it coated as it shrinks, but to allow some air to circulate so it can dry.

This stage takes several weeks.  If your orange goes mildewy or rotten, toss it out!  For this reason, I suggest putting oranges in separate bags to dry. They should shrink, be dry, and sound hollow.  Ideally, you can’t see the fruit when you are done with the process.

When done, dust them off well.  Keep your left over powder for freshening up the pomander scent over time.  Either set out in a dish with other pomanders or on a mantle to look pretty and scent your room, or carry on and make a hanging ornament.

Carefully remove the tape or rubber bands.  Loop your ribbon in a crisscross over the bare section.  Aim to cover the exposed sections, but if the ribbon is too wide, you can fold it a little or double it over.

Note:  here’s where lack of time has caught up with Syd — the loop is shown on a fresh orange because mine are still drying!

Since I’m clumsy, I like to pin mine in place first to make sure I got it right.  Then a dot of glue inside the fold is a good idea.  Your pomander is pretty light by this stage, but I don’t like to rely on just pins.  Don’t cut the ribbon yet!

Make a loop to hang it by and pin again or glue.

Now, trim the ribbon carefully, and tuck under any stray end.

I’ve been trying to find a good pic of a finished one since mine are still drying, but all the nice ones on the web are of the oranges pre-drying.  And some very pretty ones are a little misleading — they’re lovely, but since they’re not shrunk they won’t last past the season.  That’s okay, if you just want a temporary decoration, but a real pomander is meant to dry out and be almost immortal — you just re dust it every so often to replenish the scent.

This one from a wedding site is the closest I could find:

I hope you have fun, make something aromatic and pretty, or at least enjoy having a drink while stabbing an orange.

Some Historical Resources:

An overview and compilation of sites:

The always wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum:

And a site about scents of the middle ages:

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

Post a comment about either your favorite children’s historical book or a memory of a favorite Christmas craft or tale about attempting one!  Sweet or funny or even ribald — it’s all welcome!

I’ll pick a winner to be announced on Christmas Day!

Prize:  choice of Bys Vyken


Until the End of Time

34 Responses

  1. What a wonderful post! Making a pomander is probably a good way to recycle Christingle oranges – the bits always fall off those and they end up in the bin. At least a pomander lasts longer and they look lovely.

    I must admit that my favourite children’s historical book is Asterix. Probably the first comic books I ever read, and as I grew older I could appreciate the humour and the history in them more and more. Goscinny & Uderzo were geniuses.

  2. Those are gorgeous. Makes me feel crafty just reading your instructions. It’s a vicarious thing.

    My grandmother used to make wreaths, and cover pine cones the size of tankards with metallic spray paint for some craft or other. It occurs to me now to wonder what the deal was with those enormous silver pine cones. They didn’t seem odd at the time.

    As far as my memory will concur, I have made my own holiday crafts only twice in my life. I was maybe first grade age or younger for both. One was making a Christmas ornament of plastic beads and hung by a ribbon. The other was decorating a pre-made, white candle with colorful pieces of beeswax. It took a very long time to warm the postage stamp-like squares of wax in your hands until they became pliable for decorating. Much too long. I globbed all of the colors together in a block on one side of the candle and pushed them down until they stuck.

    I was so proud. To think that some people were out buying Christmas decorations, and here I could make them myself. Such a thrill. I gave the candle to my mother, who pronounced it beautiful. That pretty much satisfied my holiday creativity need for the rest of my life.

    I never made any more ornaments, or a candles, or painted a pine cone, or made a wreath, or a pomander. But after a great post like this, I know I could, if I wanted to. So it’s all good.

  3. Ooh, what a great idea. I’m going to see if my daughters want to give this a go. And I had no idea that Orris root powder was still available. I must try this just to find out what it smells like – the smell of wig powder!

    I think my favourite children’s historical was The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe. If I’m remembering it correctly as the one in which a Roman youth finds himself captured by Celts and befriends a tattooed Celtic young man. It’s been a long time since I read it. I don’t remember much more than that.

    • Orris root smells, to me, very very faintly of roses or perhaps violets — sort of a memory of flowers!

      I *just* checked out the Sutcliffe trilogy Three Legions — Eagle of the Ninth, Silver Branch, and Lamtern Bearers — as I remembered it while I was doing this project. It’s going to be my treat reading over break.

  4. All this drying time — I guess I could get started now to make pomanders for next Christmas. 🙂 I am not feeling particularly crafty this year but these are great instructions to remember for when the crafty bug hits.

    As for favorite children’s historical book — I remember reading lots of folk tales and legends from other countries like Japan, Russia and Scandinavia. I always enjoyed those.

    Thanks for a great post!


    • I am known for starting month long projects the weekend before they are due… sigh.

    • The Alamanac says to make them this week and I read some other instructionals that say 2-4 weeks is all it takes for drying. I hope to try it in time for Christmas.

  5. Thanks for a great post, Syd – and the time you took to make it!!

    In these cash-strapped times, there’s so much that people can do to save money and make their own decorations–my mother was a great believer in that and each year we’d go off and scour the countryside for holly, ivy, mistletoe, pine-cones and the like–as well as making things like this – and the house looked and smelled delicious.

  6. Oh that’s brilliant. I wonder if Julian Graves will have a big pack of cloves on special offer…



    • I used about a small tin to make 2 oranges — but I think I added in the remains of jar I found in the pantry. So, not the most precise of measures. I incline to the 18th century school of recipe writing.

  7. Now, true to my un-romance bias, I’m thinking of the pomander in Rosemary’s Baby.

    The Prince and the Pauper and Treasure Island will always be my favorite children’s historicals. And recently, M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books are the finest of YA historical novels. And though it really isn’t for kids, A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is so damn gorgeous.

    Thank you, Syd, for a lovely holiday post.

    • ooh, yes, and wasn’t there orris root in her choclate pudding? At least in the book…

      I devoured the Prince and the Pauper. I almnost wanted to learn latin in case I needed to prove I was really royal one day!

      Off to track down the Octavian Nothings!

  8. Oh what a fun post!
    My favorite children’s books were Louisa May Alcott’s. I loved her Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys even though they were sad. I read her Eight Cousins and there was a sequel whose name escapes me. An Old-fashioned Girl was also a favorite.
    We made Chanukah menorahs in Hebrew School. A long strip of clay with eight tiny pots and one bigger one. We put a bit of foil in the bottom of the cups when they dried and then put in the skinny Chanukah candles. If I remember correctly, we used some sort of paint and painted them and added sparkles on them. Very messy :~D

    • Messy crafts are the best! Although any craft I attempt becomes messy!

      Oh Jo!! I could never quite handle her marrying Prof Behr (marrying anyone really) but then I saw the version where she marries Gabriel Byrne. Yum!

    • The sequel was Rose In Bloom. That book always made me cry, because Charlie was my favorite character.

      • Yes! As soon as I saw Rose I remembered the rest.
        The other thing I remember was that it encouraged a natural style of dress for the girls. No tight cinched in waist, but loose and comfortable.
        I loved her writing.

  9. How cool. I ‘m terrible at this stuff, but I think I may give it a try. Your instructions are so clear and detailed.

  10. I made pomander balls when I was young, but I didn’t preserve them like you have.

    My favorite holiday crafts always consisted of construction paper and glitter. I made ornaments, santas, angels, you name it , all with glitter decorations.

    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my favorite historical book. It’s not officially a children’s book but I first read it when I was 11 and was enthralled by the glamor of their poverty (as I saw it then).

    • Oh, what a good way of putting it — the glamor of poverty! Yeah, I remember reading books about hard times and thinking it was so romantic. SOme of the Little House on the Prairie for example.

  11. Wow, Syd, who’d a thunk it of ya? What a lovely post!

    (And — this is a tad discomfiting, because it implies I think like Ken 😉 — I, too, immediately thought of that malodorous pendant in Rosemary’s Baby.)

    I adore natural fragrances and decorations — sachets and potpourris, pomanders and wreaths. Used to grow a whole garden of flowers and herbs just for drying.

    Oh . . . the Little Match [or Matchstick] Girl by Hans Christian Andersen! That tale tore my heart out!

    • Snort. It’s my secret nice side 😉

      I love the scent of real lavendar. And fresh basil.

      Oh, gosh that story made me all throat-lumpy.

  12. I LOVED making the old orange and clove polamanders for christmas! I haven;t done it since grandma passed on, but still, it brings back fond memories.

    Now a days, I grown my own herb garden and make sacchets to hand around the hook of the clothes hanger…

    Piece of advice – don’t use a pinch of catnip in anythingk, as the cats in your home will go nutzoid, moewing and digging at the closet door!

  13. Oh, thanks for this!
    It has always puzzled me why all orange pomanders don’t go mouldy like the one my daughter made at Brownies!

    I think my favourite children’s historical has to be A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Although now I come to think about it, that one’s a little creepy: friendless orphan girl is spied on in her bedroom by older man who gives her lots of presents and finally takes her to live with him… ;D

    • A lot of modern ones seem to be intended just for quick Christmas pretties and not for lasting beyond the season.

      It is a creepy story! The Secret Garden is a bit creepy too I realized when I re-read it about a year or so ago.

  14. This is fantastic! I absolutely have to see if I can get my hands on some Orris root powder – what a fantastic little “stocking stuffer” for family and friends.

  15. Oh, I should ask – if I start now, will I have them ready in time for Christmas, or is this something to keep for next year?

  16. my favorite childrens book is still Winnie The Pooh..

    the clove oranges are great! I used to love to make those along with the baked cinamon ornaments! yummy smells!

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