The Scent of Christmases Past
In the late 1940’s my older sisters and I took a heart-pounding streetcar ride downtown to Loveman’s Department Store windows decked out in lively winter scenes behind glass, cold and slick to my tongue when licking at a giant candy cane sitting inside.
Later, at a nearby nursing home, I cozied up to a real fancy tree, an evergreen with blue and red lights reflecting on spun-glass clouds called “angel hair”, enticing me to pluck at its shiny softness during several carols sung to pale wrinkly folks in rolling chairs. “Hark the Herald Angels sing,” my sisters chorused like angels, and there was an angel’s very hair on the tree begging to be touched, which I did, and itched all night. Really, they might as well have placed attic insulation on branches. Angel hair should be treated as hazardous waste, though this was during an era of lead paint and asbestos siding. In 1949 who knew?
Soon there came a generous man we called Uncle Ed, asking what my sisters and I wanted Santa to bring and promising to deliver our letters right to the North Pole. Upon a study of the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, a doctor kit seemed just the ticket for first aid, for by then I’d had a tangle with red wasps and various accidents. Now I cut out the catalogue’s photo to be sure Santa got my point. A doctor kit, I scribbled in my best First Grade block letters. Time passed and Uncle Ed made the delivery for Santa, too. No way could I wait for Christmas Day, so scratched a hole in the wrapping paper. Hot diggity dog! It was a case, though not black like Dr. Fisher’s when he arrived at our home to save my life… again. My heart leapt. Oh, hurry Christmas! The day finally came. I ripped open the present, flipped up the lid. Empty! Just a lame little suitcase, nothing inside.
Not all Christmases were disappointing though. With schooldays came thoughtful teachers−God love ’em− who made Christmas more fun than Grandma’s cast-off snuff can. We hummed along with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker tunes while cutting out origami snowflakes, practiced weeks for a nighttime school programs, and though I’d been all but passed by when Jesus handed out musical talent, my teacher thrust a triangle into my fist, and I clanged along with a chorus singing “Jingle Bells”. Oh, how Dad’s ’50 Oldsmobile sped driving us home, much too fast, for we whisked by twinkling lights of red, blue and green before my eyes could focus. “Hey! Did ya’ll see the lights?” I yelped from a spot wedged among sisters in the seat-beltless backseat, where each of us clutched a sack full of ribbon candy, rock-hard Brazil nuts and one orange−a gift from a fat man wearing a red suit, and saying, “Ho, ho, ho!” Thrilling stuff, but I saw clear he was my neighbor who sold used cars, Mr. Norris dressed in a Santa suit. In the Fifth Grade, the teacher held two Christmas contests, word games. That day I hopped onto the bus for home grinning and clutching both prizes: a peppermint stick long as my arm, and a chocolate Hersey bar big as a spiral notebook. Bingo! My studying a dictionary for fun had begun paying off.
Today’s fake trees? Pooh! Our Christmas trees were searched for in the woods with Dad’s saw in hand and dragged home by its trunk, so if you’ve never done this you’ve missed out on special things like cedar pricks and sappy fingers. And fresh scent. Most ornaments sprung from our imaginings, and were made anew each Christmas: colorful chains of construction paper, soap powder snow, white paper cut into snowflakes, a star topper of aluminum foil-covered cardboard, red berries and pine cones gathered from the woods, old Christmas cards, breathtaking when I’d stand back and squint.
A couple of my fresh tree memories really stink. On my eighth Christmas we had the usual cedar tree decorated with a sprinkle of gifts underneath. Now famous for peeking, I made no exception this year. Hey! Tearing a hole in mine mattered not, for we came home from school and a thief had skipped off with Dad’s wallet, leaving my mittens thrown out in front of God and everybody, along with a trail of torn wrapping paper and the drooping forlorn tree. You know, the last Christmas tree I harvested from the woods back in the ’70’s had a nest of mice hidden deep inside the scratchy cedar branches. Two generations of tiny rodents unloaded right inside my house, poor babies.
Today’s pre-lit silk trees from China look real nice with my now-dimming vision, but I do miss the smell of fresh cedar. Today evergreen scent spews from candles… made in China. Oh. And Loveman’s Store? It’s boarded up, its torn canopy flapping in the breeze and waving goodbye to Christmases past. The stinky Christmases? They’re all good, for life’s little letdowns build character. –G.H. Sherrer