Posted by: alexhickey | December 19, 2017

Christmas Scents©

Sacks of Prince Edward Island potatoes, carrots, cabbages, turnips and parsnips don’t seem to be the type of thing to stir excitement among children; however, each fall there was heightened anticipation in my St. Jacques neighbourhood when the vegetable boat arrived at the government wharf.  Helping to load the heavy sacks onto the pickup truck and then off-load and carry them into the dark cellar for winter storage was thrilling.  Climbing in over the stacks to cover them with heavy blankets to give protection from frost added to that feeling of being part of something important.  In later winters vegetables were delivered by truck from J. Petite and Sons or Clifford Shirley’s store in English Harbour West, dropped off beside the gate to be transported by wheel barrow to the cellar. This wasn’t quite as adventurous and felt more like work.

We didn’t grow many root vegetables even though there was no shortage of arable land to do so.  Our family, like most others in the community during the postwar years, depended upon the fall shipments to get us through the winter.

Christmas Apples

The attention of every child in the household was ensured by an additional attraction which arrived in a barrel. Imagine being eight years old again and a barrel of Gravenstein’s are delivered and stored in your cellar. You feel as though you have been catapulted into apple heaven.

Savour for a moment the delicious aroma of red succulent apples drifting across your nose as you slowly open a door.  That exotic, intoxicating aroma fills the room.  Ever so gently you ease the door closed behind you and you pause, standing motionless in that bouquet, absorbing it through the pores of your skin.  Twirl on the balls of your feet and the indulgence twirls with you.  More than the aroma of a single apple in one’s hand, more than a bowl of apples on a kitchen table and more than a single corrugated box of apples in the local store, more, a lot  more!

Combine those evocative whiffs with the redness accentuated by delicate hints of yellow and green, a short woody stalk curving at a slight angle from the top.  Feel the coolness of their waxy surface to your fingertips as you cradle one in the palm of your hand.  You can almost hear the crunch of your teeth biting into its crispness and feel the sweet juice as it sprays against your wrist.

I don’t recall how many years the practice of buying apples by barrel lasted.  What I do recall is the power of one’s nose in fueling an appetite for them.  Just a whiff would set off the urge to make another trip to the barrel, but along with the barrel came dire warnings not to attempt sneaking into the cellar.  That warning was sufficient to keep one out for a while but not forever. The cellar door was airtight and padded against the cold so when it closed the heady aroma of living in an apple orchard dissipated. An added impediment to pilfering apples was the fact that the cellar door was located in the back porch thus any time the door was opened the smell of apples let everyone know. There was no need for alarm bells.

Just as dramatic and equally as exotic was the warm, spicy, rich, mouth-watering aroma of fruitcake escaping from the well-worn oven door of the Enterprise stove.  The transformation of a fruitcake in the oven from a gooey mess to a delectable treat for the human taste buds is nothing short of magical.  As its ingredients of dried and candied fruit, mixed peel, raisins, currants, nuts and spices heat up and release their enticing flavours they combine with the browning effect on its outside, filling the kitchen with anticipation of Christmas.  Cakes were baked well in advance of decorating the house, allowing time to age and develop like good beer and wine, complex characteristics for the palette and nose.  When Christmas cakes went into the oven the year was waning and the days to Christmas dwindling.

While the cakes were being mixed a good heat was established by banking the firebox until the metal of the stove exuded heat from all sides.  Once the oven temperature reached its desired target and was sustained, it was only then the cake was put inside. Accompanying the ritual was another warning to us children to not go ‘jumping about’ or stamping your feet’ for fear of making the cake “sink” in the middle.

Though I’ve never baked a fruitcake I’ve eaten quite a few of them through the years and have a particular liking for the dark variety.  When I say variety I acknowledge that, though they may share many common ingredients, fruitcakes have more than subtle variations from one house to another, in taste, smell, volume, density, appearance and presentation.  Cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mace and nutmeg, brown sugar, molasses, coffee, ginger, butter and occasionally dark rum, all combine to seduce one into a world of decadent dining. From one house to the next, differences could be ascertained based upon the measure of spices used – one Aunt preferred the use of more cloves than another; one neighbour had preference for more allspice than her sister-in-law.  By the time I reached adulthood I could identify the baker of a cake through its ambrosia and distinct flavours.

During the early years of my childhood the tree didn’t arrive inside the house until after all children were securely tucked into bed on Christmas Eve with warning that sleep was a condition to be met for Santa Claus to come.  Trying to force oneself into a state of sleep rarely works as most of us have learned.  Therefore, lying in bed, eyes tightly closed, ears wide open to every sound and a nose monitoring the air for anything out of the ordinary was a common state for most of us on Christmas Eve.  The first hint that changes were happening downstairs was the smell of the tree as it was carried through the house to the living room.  How could one mistake the pungent, near mystical odour of a freshly cut balsam fir when it first encounters the heat from a blistering hot wood stove?

The scent still has a reassuring feeling associated with it for when it wafts across my nose I feel certain that spirit of Christmas has entered the house.  When smelled late into the night on Christmas Eve it’s soothing effect was just the thing to tip one into a state of relaxation sufficient to bring on sleep.  That sleep wasn’t populated with visions of sugar plums or angels; it was tormented most of the time by states of near wakefulness wondering if Santa Claus had arrived yet.  A tentative opening of one eye cast towards the window would reveal the approach of daylight and the time to bound down the stairs to the living room. However, as often as not, I finally feel asleep and had to be awakened when the time came to get up.

Walking down the stairs was like walking into an evergreen forest for the scent of the Christmas tree became stronger with every step.  There is little that compares to the sight of a fir tree seen decorated for the first time on Christmas morning.  Brilliant colours and reflections of light bouncing of delicate glass bulbs and strands of silver tinsel were as alluring as any circus or carnival of lights anywhere in the world.  Seeing the tree in all its decorated splendour and absorbing that intriguing outdoors smell given off by the resin-filled blisters on the bark of the balsam fir, were almost as significant as the wrapped presents sitting beneath it.

Throughout Christmas Day and the days which followed the tree would remind us of its presence by its scent.  You could be sitting in the living room or anywhere in the house and all of a sudden pick up on its release of nature into the air.  Whenever that happened it brought a smile of appreciation to my lips and still does to this day.

A few days ago I was browsing a display of artificial trees which were quite convincing in their emulation of the real thing to the untrained eye of someone who hadn’t grown up in or adjacent to a forest.  Hanging on a stand adjacent to the display was a container of metal tubes labelled spruce, pine, and fir.  My curiosity got the better of me despite having a good sense of what was in each of them.   When I opened the container a strong chemical smell assaulted my nose and made my eyes water.  You would have to close your eyes really tight to imagine it truly smelled like a fir tree.  It left me with a little sadness that somewhere children would wake up Christmas morning to that smell, not knowing the difference between it and the delicate tendrils of the real forest as it softly and gently ebbs and flows throughout a room.

Layer on top of these scents that of freshly made cookies from the oven cooling on the kitchen counter-top and you have one of the most fulfilling experiences the sense of smell can deliver.  Shortbread cookies topped with cuttings of red and green caramelized cherries in their centre compete for attention with textures of melting chocolate and coconut and add to the already luxurious presence of deep dark mysterious date squares whose filling comes from far, far away in the moist sub-tropical countries of North Africa.   Molasses buns were a staple treat several times during the year, however, their presence at Christmas was a comfort, a sense of continuity that this Christmas experience was grounded in other parts and time of our lives. The same can be said for raisin tea buns and loaves of home-made bread eaten while still steaming from the oven. In the case of bread though, it was usually quite a challenge to convince the baker that it must be eaten now while still hot instead of waiting for it to cool down to make it easier to slice!

In as much as these all add to the depth and breadth of an olfactory Christmas, the single-most cookie which evokes soft fuzzy memories, delicate savouring of its nuances on the tongue and lends itself to either breaking between fingers or teeth, is the inimitable gingersnap.  More especially are they Christmas cookies when they are made in shapes of evergreen trees, snowmen and candy canes.  These flat, delectable delights distinguish themselves from ginger cookies in their hardness and the distinct “snap” when broken into pieces.  When these Christmas treats are baking the unmistakable presence of ginger in the air evokes more of Christmases past than any reading of Dickens Christmas Carol.

While we gather as friends, family and kindred spirits this time of year let’s stop and “smell the roses”, as they say, count our blessings and reflect on the small human things which make events like this special in our memories.  The things we smell, the sights we see around us, the taste of favourite foods and the people we reach out and touch create the feelings and memories we carry through our lifetime and pass on to others.  Rarely in our busy lives do we consider taking time to reflect and act on those reflections, however, when the end of the calendar year begins to roll around we are most likely to fall victim to such a human disposition regardless of a faith or belief system.  The universality of reaching out to those things which have brought comfort into our lives and still do, is one measure of our humanity.  This year I remember the scents of the season and the threads they have twisted and woven through the fabric of my life.  Our lives, like the humble but decadent fruit cake are all woven differently, yet running beneath the surface are the nuances which make us unique and at the same time remind us of all we have in common.

For me it’s Merry Christmas! For you, it’s whatever salutation brings you joy!

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Responses

  1. That is beautiful memories!! I think we all have sights and sounds and smells that bring us back to our memories of Christmas. Mine is a vamp full of fruit and some hard candy. Watching Charlie Brown Christmas every year. It seems like when we were growing up there was 12 days of Christmas instead of just one. Thank you Mr. Hickey for your post. And Merry Christmas to you!

  2. What a lovely read! I can relate to so many of your memories and relive them with you. I was born in St. Jacques and left with my family in 1942. I was ten at the time but I can still smell the barrel of apples and the ginger snaps and feel the excitement of Christmas…..the most wonderful time of the year! It has been such a pleasure to return to my childhood by reading this article and remembering fondly those good old days. Thank you for that!

  3. A warm lovely article. I could recognize all the scents you spoke of remembering especially dark fruit cakes baked in wood stoves. Thank you for the memories and Merry Christmas.

  4. Well Done Alex, brings back a lot of memories for sure, for me Apples were such a treat we always got one in our stocking Christmas morning. thanks for the read and Merry Christmas.

  5. Thank you Alex for the beautiful article .It brought back wonderful memories of Christmas past ! May you and Hazel have a great Christmas and all the best in the new year.

  6. Enjoyed the read. Christmas always brings back memories of my childhood. Wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas.

  7. A great read Alex. Merry Christmas.

  8. Thank You,Alex, for this reminiscence and the previous one…it brought me back home in such a wonderful way…..I forwarded you writings to Terry and Kathleen. I know they,too, would thank you> Happy Yuletide; John


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