Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What the poets don't tell

The Christmas season came to an end in our house today as we undressed the tree and took down the tinsel and lights. When the children were small we kept the decorations up until January 7th. For us, the season ended with a splendid 'Piphany Party', a term coined by my son before he could pronounce 'Epiphany.' We would solemnly put the three kings into the crib and then hunt for the gifts that had been hidden around the house.

I always found our Epiphany celebration far more enjoyable than Christmas itself. Perhaps I could join in more, without the pressures of preparing the house for guests and the seemingly endless cooking and clearing up. By the time of Epiphany, the guests had gone home and we could have a last delightful time before the children went back to school. Now our children are the guests who come for Christmas and they are long gone by Epiphany.

The shops were stripped of their decorations on January 2nd, no waiting for 'Twelfth Night' for them; after all, their decorations went up in November and were looking pretty shabby by the middle of December. So, I succumbed to the 'Christmas is over' feeling and spent the morning packing away the baubles - each with its own association of Christmases past. I was filled with nostalgia and a certain sadness at the thought that this might have been our last Christmas in this house. The sad mood was intensified as I discovered all the chocolates were still on the tree! The children used to strip those by Boxing Day, even as twenty-somethings. I never thought they would grow too old for chocolate.

One of our family Christmas customs is to play Bing Crosby Christmas songs endlessly in the background, our favourites being 'Christmas is coming and the egg is in the nog' (for obvious silly reasons) and 'Is Christmas only a tree?' because we have fun making up our own answers to the question. Thinking about that today, I would answer, 'No, Christmas is about smells.'

If my son is reading this, he'll be falling about hysterically now because 'smell' is one of the words that trigger his mirth, along with 'egg', 'cheese' and 'pie'. (Don't ask!) But I think that the sense of smell is closely linked with nostalgia, particularly at Christmas time.

I came across this poem many years ago:

WHY is it that the poet tells
So little of the sense of smell?
These are the odors I love well:
The smell of coffee freshly ground;

Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
Or onions fried and deeply browned.
The fragrance of a fumy pipe;
The smell of apples, newly ripe;

And printer's ink on leaden type.
Woods by moonlight in September
Breathe most sweet, and I remember
Many a smoky camp-fire ember.

Camphor, turpentine, and tea,
The balsam of a Christmas tree,
These are whiffs of gramarye. . .
A ship smells best of all to me!
There are certain scents that can transport me to forgotten times and places far more immediately than a photograph or the spoken word. The spices and brandy in the Christmas cake mix take me back to my mother's kitchen and 'stir-up' Sundays of my childhood. A clove-studded ham being lifted from the oven fills the house with the scent of Christmas Eve. Pine, cinnamon and ginger bring all the past Christmases alive again.
It is usually the sudden whiff of a certain scent that triggers a memory, sometimes long forgotten: lily of the valley conjures up one of my grandmothers and lavender the other. I don't know if it is unusual, but I can do the reverse: I can think about certain people or places and recall the smells associated with them. I can smell the plasticine and the cod liver oil associated with the nursery class I attended before the age of 4. I can think of my long-dead father and smell his Old Spice and Brylcreem and when I think of my baby brother, I smell zinc and caster oil cream.
Like Christopher Morley, I've always wondered why the sense of smell is so neglected by the poets. I'd be pleased to hear of other people's scent-related memories.

1 comment:

  1. Smelling thick diesel exhaust brings back memories of serving in the military, for me.

    There's a special smell, a blend of wood & paste, that brings me right back to elementry school.


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