How beautiful was the Thanksgiving holiday weekend? Cool but mild weather; blue skies all day Thursday and Friday; pure light shining down unobstructed by leaves; time for beautiful walks in nature; and amazing food—the most delicious and creative food of the year. Families were all together, expressing gratitude for the abundance on display, the goodness of the universe and the freedoms that as Americans we all enjoy. My only hangover, I felt, as I sat down to write this column, was a feeling of uplift from this wonderful, quintessential American holiday. I am biased, though; it’s my favorite holiday of the year.

And so the holiday season has begun. Day by day, the shadow of darkness creeps longer. On moonless, cloudy nights, by 5:30 it’s pitch black outside. And by 7:30, it feels more like 9:30 p.m., it’s been dark for so long. But now, at last, we have entered the short three-week stretch of fighting back against the dark until we reach winter solstice on the 21st and pass it. Everywhere there will be beautiful holiday lights on display. Jews will light menorahs, their lights increasing day by day, to memorialize Hanukkah. Christians will be lighting up trees outside in their yards and bringing Christmas trees inside, hung with lights and intricate objects, with their wonderful balsam scent and their evergreen needles.

Balsam, the aromatic substance that flows from various trees and plants—that deep, earthy, woodsy smell—is a natural mood booster with a host of benefits. It eases anxiety, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress and boosts the immune system. These benefits come from phytoncides emitted by plants, which are volatile essential oils with strong protective benefits against bacteria and insects. Their function is to help plants thrive. 

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