I heard a little tot go singing ‘neath the General Post Office windows by the church; it was just before Christmas. He was worried about Santa getting scorched when the old gentleman came down the chimney on the Eve. His parents kept reassuring him: “we’ll both make sure the fire is quite out – and raked out – before we go to bed. Now don’t you fret!” I thought, how lovely to still have a real smoky-woody fire. When I was an infant I never worried about such things, but I was terrified that I might SEE Santa; that I might awake and find him there filling both the room and my knitted stocking; huge and scarlet and alien. My father reassured me with a dryness that now makes me laugh: “I can promise you faithfully that you’ll Never Ever see him!”
Or smell him. But then, maybe you did just that, last weekend? Wouldn’t it be lovely if – like the great St Nicholas that he actually is – Santa smelled of incense and the purest most costly myrrh? After all the Patron of Perfume is not the often wrongly attributed St Mary Magdalene with her costly jar of nard¤, but St Nicholas of Myra whose medieval tomb at Bari was said to perfume the Adriatic coast with divine fragrance. I’m often surprised that the perfume industry has not more openly and widely embraced Nicholas as its own: he’d be something rather different and inspiring in those interminable seasonal advertisements. Presumably, like Mr Blair& Mr Campbell, perfume “en corporation” does not “do God”: which is supremely odd on account of the whole fragrance phenonemon being entirely religious in origin and concept.
Anyway, sublime to ridiculous. I suppose what Santa REALLY smells of is:
Soot – in those chimblies where acrid bitter soot still happens
Crusted port wine and old sweet sherry
That juicy flaky greasy tang of mince pies
Perspiration and unwashed hair; camphor and cobwebs
Reindeer – a sort of venison smell, I imagine, which would kind of meld with the fur trim on the rather tired old hot velvet and cracked leather boots
Then there are all those oranges to stuff into the toes of a billion stockings. Not forgetting the lumps of coal and the fresh cut green willow switches for bad children. All these must cling to the Saint’s presence, oozing from his great oakum canvas sack.
Incidentally, did you see that curious “slow television” turkey – ‘SLEIGH RIDE’ – over Christmas? I felt sorry for those poor reindeer in their clearly very uncomfortable blue dog-leads, being yanked along by two rather unsympathetic girls through the eternal twilight. I could smell that scrubby tundra all right: the snow, the frozen black twigs, the damp, the scanty fires and the pathetic reindeer supper of frozen moss chunks.
One common, yet often forgotten, Christmas smell is that of glue: vital for inventive fancy gift-wrap, for botching up decorations and for mending that odd breakage that will happen in all the excitement. But hasn’t the odour of glue gone off? We all know why this is, I suppose, but it really has lost its punch. Do you remember Copydex? It was made I believe from boiled up fish heads. And, of course, there was that white paste – what was it called? – in blue pots, smelling deliciously of almonds. Appropriately, each pot had an inner wax lid exactly like a Mr Kipling Bakewell tart icing, minus the cherry. I know some of us tasted it. Then there was messy old Gloy which used to encrust its red rubber stopper like clear nail varnish, and which soaked through newspaper clippings, ruining them even as you compiled the scrapbook. Each adhesive had a very distinct character. Being a child of Leicester, I liked crystal-clear Bostik best. There was a boy at school who played a sort of Russian roulette with Bostik. He’d spread a thick layer over the lenses of his very expensive spectacles. If the glue was allowed to set undisturbed, it would eventually set and peel off in a perfect film; incidentally – or so Kenneth said – efficiently cleaning the glasses. But, of course, if the glue was tampered with as it dried – total disaster. We all had time to waste in those days.
As we still do at Christmas, leading remorselessly to a waist of time.
I wish you all that you wish for yourselves in the fullness of 2016. “Time! And time hath brought us hither!” Happy New Year to One and All.
¤ nor SS. Therese, Dorothy and Rose of Lima with their cornucopias of roses, flowers and fruits.