Sunday, December 21, 2014

What does Christmas smell like to you?

It has been said that of all our senses the sense of smell evokes memories stronger than any of the others. I for one believe that to be true, especially this time of year.

It all starts around Thanksgiving when the turkey is popped into the oven and the aroma of dinner floats from room to room. For us, turkey is the staple of both Thanksgiving and Christmas, with a little added ham to spice up Christmas dinner. As I sat there in the living room a couple of weeks ago watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade on television and smelling the turkey cook, my mind’s eye looked back on many a happy time with my family and all the holiday traditions.

Being a Catholic, one of the other smells of Christmas is odor of beeswax candles burning. All candles used in Mass and the numerous other seasonal celebrations must be made of pure beeswax, and since so many more candles are burned around Christmastime, that wonderful warm smell of beeswax fills the air and our memories. There is nothing more stirring than the memory of standing on the alter holding a candle or standing near the other alter boys holding candles. The church would be darkened and the glow from the candles filled the air with peace and tranquility. As a younger altar boy, I would be holding a candle flickering mightily just a few inches from my face and I could feel the warmth of the flame in the cool December air. As I grew older, I graduated to positions that did not require carrying candles.

The first of these positions was censer bearer. The censer was a golden vessel at the end of a long chain. Before Mass, I was responsible for lighting the round charcoal briquette and keeping it lit and ready for use by swinging the censer around to keep the air flowing across the glowing coal through the vent holes in the top half of the vessel through which the chain was fitted. One had to be careful when setting the censer down that it was stably nestled on the floor and that the chain did not slip through the top and heat up near the charcoal. When it was time, the priest would call the censer bearer and the boat bearer up to the altar. He would raise the top of the censer and sprinkle incense from the boat onto the glowing coal and the air would immediately be laden with the most glorious smell as the oils, resins and spices filled the air in a plume of white smoke. Incense was a year round thing too but like beeswax, much more prevalent at Christmas time.

Finally, I was promoted to the position of Master of Ceremonies, the top of the altar boy hierarchy. In that position, during High Mass at Christmas time, after the priest blessed the altar by walking around it swinging the censer, I would have the responsibility of carrying that blessing to the congregation by walking amongst it spreading the sweet/sharp smoke to each and every one in attendance. By time I was finished, the visibility was reduced so that it was difficult to see the altar from the back end of the church. That year, the nun who oversaw the altar boys, praised me for my diligence in spreading the incense, but reminded me that there just might be someone in the congregation who was allergic to incense.

But the smell that says “Christmas” to me more than any other is that of the evergreens; in particular, the odor of pine and Frazier firs. Living in the South, the fragrance of pine fills the air with the onset of Fall as the needles that are to be in this year’s crop turn brown and fall. The needles aren’t the only thing that fall from pine trees in the autumn. Small droplets of pine sap also fall from the trees and stick to everything, especially cars and then especially windshields. When this happens it is not easy to get the sap off the windshields no matter how much elbow grease is applied. Oh well, that is what the carwashes are for.

Frazier firs are not native to the south as they require a little cooler climate than we have down here. When they hit the stores, I know that Christmas is nigh. Come to think of it, Frazier firs are a better harbinger of Christmas than the calendar. You see, Frazier firs have a distinct, limited shelf life between cutting and the needles falling off them. So, even with Christmas sales starting before Halloween, the Frazier firs still arrive after Thanksgiving. So the most "Christmassy" of smells is Frazier fir. When you smell that, you know it is really coming. And usually it is the last smell of Christmas. Contrary to the gospel of Madison Avenue, the Twelve Days of Christmas do not end on December 25th. They run from Christmas Day to the Feast of the Epiphany traditionally celebrated on the sixth of January. So although many folks take their Christmas decorations down before New Year’s Day, not so at my house; the Christmas decorations at home and the Frazier firs at church stay up until Epiphany. That is a pretty good way to start the year, don’t you think? May you have a Merry, and smelly Christmas! Oh MY!

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