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The Smells of Christmas Past

by Corky Deir Rawson

from Issue#20- December-January 2001-02

The smells of Christmas are overpowering in their
poignancy! The detailed memories they evoke are
incredibly sharp. That rich melding of scents is nonexistent in today’s superstores and mile-wide food markets where there is more packaging than nutrition on the shelves. That wonderful, personal, tactile experience is gone. Everything is wrapped, boxed, cryovac’d, waxed and sterile.

If you’re lucky enough to date back to the decade famous for tunes like "Love Songs of the Nile," "You Are My Lucky Star" and "September In The Rain," you’ll surely remember cellophane and rayon. You’ll also be able to program your nose for a trip back to the corner stores of the thirties, where a hundred odours combined to excite the taste buds.

There were layers of smells, starting with the husky, dark scent of Brazil nuts in open burlap sacks alongside the filberts, pale almonds, and huge clunking walnuts. Even the smell of their hemp housings lent a masculine, international flavour to the seasonal bouquet.

Another strata of scent came from the citrus fruits. The small square papers that wrapped each individual lemon, orange and grapefruit were steeped in an oily pungency borrowed from their acidy skins. There was an acrid, rather private scent from cold grapes, all rosy-red and slightly squared from having been packed tightly in flat wooden boxes in California. The clean lumber smell of the crates echoed that of the sawdust-strewn floor, and bounced rough through the nostrils, with all the fresh fragrance of ruddy-cheeked Macintosh apples or those bright green ones, and dull little brown ones they called ‘russets.’

And there were pineapples with spiky green fronds at one end and skins made of dozens of little Chrysler symbols. Just to see them there, glorifying the small spaces of those moist little stores with their makeshift bin and shelf arrangements, was a feast for the eye! Even if there was no hope of experiencing them first-hand; just knowing they existed was a comfort to the youngster with the googley eyes and the rumbling tummy.

Oh, the bouquet of aromas, the festival of textures and colours! And from far-off lands of Bedouins and palm trees, vast sandy deserts and veiled harem girls, came the moist and glistening dates, dried figs, and red pomegranates filled with ruby seeds and pale membranes. These caught my fancy most of all! I could see, behind my eyelids, camel caravans in swaying, tasselled regalia with dusky, turbaned riders under sundown skies.

Open glass jars held shredded coconut or big wet muscat raisins, glossy fat prunes, licorice allsorts, humbugs, chocolate creams and red or green hard candies, like the ones Santa left in our stockings. Their delicious promise joined the waftings of fresh-roasted coffee from the grinder corner, and the look of the polished brown beans told how they’d come all the way from the high Andes of South America. You could picture small grey burros winding carefully down the mountainside, under their burden of bean sacks.

In late December, big bouquets of dried sage, garlic strings, cinnamon sticks, whole nutmegs and cloves, lent their herbal and spicy fillips to that aromatic tapestry. I can remember the thrill of walking in to the jingle of the door’s tiny silver and black bell. It was a joy and a luxury in the realm of fantasy-feasting.

Things you were able to take home for less than two dollars filled our brown paper sacks; things that burst into a new riot of fragrance in the warmth of your own kitchen, to be reverently put away in a cupboard or ice box, or relegated to the cool darkness of the fruit cellar.

To me, the character of Christmas, to this day, depends on the olfactory sense. What would it be without the glorious clean smell of fresh fir tree sap and the perfume of spruce or pine needles indoors?

There is another key essence in the sniffing-jar of memory. What child has not succumbed to the smelling of new print in textbooks, coloured inks on paper, or the funny papers, especially on damp days? Putting new paper goods to the nose to better know their pedigree is universal with kids! Here’s where the "Treasure Box" came in.

Each year, the Goodfellows of Windsor delivered their magic to poor children…the item that made Christmas joyful and bounteous. It came in the shape of a red net stocking filled with trinkets, nuts, fruits, and candies. But down in the toe nestled a small box about two inches square, spangled with such brilliant colours that when you moved it, it made your eyes jump. The red, green, black, and gold foil patterns caused an optical illusion when you trembled it to hear the opulent sound of the ten gleaming new copper pennies inside. A person was suddenly rich as Croesus and the box became a toy itself — a treat for the eyes! The Goodfellows even managed to include one of those jumbo peppermint canes you don’t see anymore, and there were tiny gilt bells where the drawstrings tied at the top of the stocking, so you could hear real music when you wiggled it and set the "fairy balls" a-ringing.

I still smell coloured Christmas packages, especially if, when you move them, they make your eyes jump.

Now for a few final odours of Nostalgia: the main one had to do with Mother’s sense of household order. Since she always washed and waxed the hardwood floors the day before Christmas, Johnson’s paste wax in the orange and blue tin has to be an essential aroma of the season, along with the wisp of coal gas merging with the benison of heat from the baseboard registers, and the magnificent essence of the roasting turkey or chicken, a touch of steaming turnip, potato, creamed onions, and cranberries popping in their tart juices, on the back of the old enamel Jewel stove. Waftings of mince pies weaving-in with the teaser of the stuffed and browning bird in the oven, give you the epicurean delights of the festive season, in a nutshell.

All that’s missing in the distinct but subtle potpourri of memory, is the scent of excitement and anticipation as the freshly-washed heads hit their pillows, and the ears straining for even one small tap of Santa’s tiny boot, or a footfall from Dancer, Prancer or Vixen on our snow-covered roof! How deep the electric darkness… how silent the holy night… that lean but magic Christmas Eve of 1930, on Lillian Street!

Condensed from "Border City Sketches: A Walk Through the Thirties" written and published by Corky Deir Rawson, 1991. Limited numbers vailable for sale at The Walkerville Times Book and Gift Shop for $13.



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