Monday, December 17, 2018

Smelling Christmas

More than a dozen Christmas carolers were gathered in the lobby of the Cumberland County Jail as I was leaving last week after conducting a Bible study. No one may go beyond the lobby without first passing through a metal detector and the Reverend Jeff McIlwain, the jail’s chaplain, was shepherding them through. All appeared to be about my age and were emptying their pockets of keys, coins, cell phones, and taking off belts with metal buckles. All were in good spirits.

Christmas carolers used to be a common this time of year and I have fond memories of joining with them and singing around my neighborhood every year. I don’t remember who organized it but we had little booklets with lyrics and notes for all the traditional, faith-based carols like “The First Noel”; “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and many others. We’d stand in the snow outside each house and sing two or three before moving on to the next house where owners would appear in the window, smiling. We did the same thing in Lovell when the local UCC Church organized it. Houses are much scattered in Lovell and we were carted around on a hay-filled trailer pulled along slowly by a pickup truck.

I would be a good singer if it weren’t for my voice, and I mercifully allowed others to drown me out as we trekked around the neighborhood. It put me in the Christmas spirit and I was reminded at the jail how much I missed it. These days, however, it's mostly smells that bring Christmas memories back to me and balsam is one of them. My wife has been snipping branches from fir trees near our home, after which our grandchildren have been cutting the needles off with scissors and sewing them into little pillows. 

The smell of oil-based paint also reminds me of Christmas. That is probably unique to me but possibly shared by my surviving siblings because one year my mother and father decided to put the Christmas tree in our basement. Their idea was to watch us come down the stairs and look at our faces when we first saw our presents under the tree. That way they wouldn’t have to get up before dawn the way we kids always did. They put the basement off limits to all eight of us on Christmas morning until we had gone to Christmas mass and eaten breakfast. For weeks before the big day, my father spruced it up down there by painting the concrete walls and floor. The smell of oil-based paint is getting about as scarce as Christmas caroling these days, but when I occasionally get a whiff of it that Christmas memory still comes flooding back.

The smell of melting plastic does the same thing and here’s why: My mother disappointed us all one year when she brought home a box containing a reusable Christmas tree. It wasn’t even green; it was silvery. It had a central pole into which holes had been drilled and it was propped up on a stand. Into the holes, we inserted “branches” of graduated lengths — long ones around the bottom and progressively shorter ones going around up to the top. Branches were painted silver and adorned with tinsel. Beneath the tree and shining upward was an electric light focused through a rotating, four-colored wheel so the tree would change from red to green to blue to I-forget-what-color. After someone inserted a bulb with a higher wattage, the rotating plastic lenses slowly melted, hence the smell.

I never thought it would happen but I gradually came to like that tree. I even preferred it to the real, balsam-fir trees most people had. On my paper route, I’d see traditional Christmas trees in every picture window of every house on Boisvert and Euclid Roads in our town of Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Returning home in the dark of late afternoon in time for supper, I admired the changing colors on the silver-tinseled branches of that fake tree in our picture window. And, it was easier to take down after New Year’s Day when everyone in the neighborhood took down their trees.

Many dragged their old trees down to the sand pit at the end of Euclid Road where we kids often played. During winters when there wasn’t enough snow on the nearby sledding hill we sometimes played hide-and-seek down there. My favorite hiding place was under a pile of those dried-up and discarded Christmas trees. No one could ever find me as I lay there enjoying the sweet fragrance of dried balsam. The needles smell different when they’re dry and that distinct smell — still pleasant — continues to remind me of good times playing with friends in that old sand pit.


Unknown said...

In Tamworth we have solved the problem about what to do with our old Christmas trees with an event every January called "Light the Night" . Everyone is invited to bring their unwanted trees to a pile of others at the Chocorua Dam Park and there is a conflagration enjoyed by everyone. We all go over to an open house at "The Farmstand Bed and Breakfast" and to a pot luck at nearby Runnells Hall. Merry Christmas Ann McGarity

cowboy ted said...

Jesus is the gift of Christmas, eternal life. John 3:16
Merry Christmas to all.

CaptDMO said...

I always get a head start on the smells of Christmas.
About the same time the storm windows replace the screens, out come the "door snakes".
These are fabric tubes filled with fir clippings to stop the drafts under the doors of this old house
Despite the fact that SOME of them obtained over the years look like a string of kittens, these snakes are MEANT to be kicked into place after closing a door, releasing a waft of Fir/Pine.
They seem to have a lifespan as potpourri though. After 15 years, some of them seem to do nothing anymore but block drafts from under the doors.

Jay said...

My father was a truck driver in Baltimore City and he bought a set of Lionel trains from one of his fellow drivers. Every Christmas he’d set those things up around the tree. Loved those trains. Wish I still had them now.