If any of you out there don’t know the glorious G. More O’Ferrall 1952 movie of “The Holly And The Ivy” you should scoot out now and lay in a copy of the DVD for the Christmas holidays. Demand a print which includes the mixed infants’ Nativity Play, inexcusably cut from my version. Among other delights this little-known film catches perfectly the suggestions of seasonal scents in a rambling and none too prosperous Norfolk parsonage, sunk in snow drifts, memories and stifled emotions. “How bitter the holly smells…it’s in the stems when you break it…as bitter as any gall..” murmurs Celia Johnson at the Christmas Eve family dinner table.
The house smells so cold, it comes off the celluloid in waves. A damp East Anglian bitter freeze whose bleakness is emphasised rather than diminished by the odours of old musty furniture undoubtedly permeated with cat. The fatty juiciness of roast goose; National Service army uniform itching like doormats; the duck pond and the dodgy duck eggs; unending washing up; over-worn woollens full of kitchen smells and insufficiently rinsed of Lux flakes; coal dust and soot; Woolworth toiletries; popping crackers; badly foxed bibles; gritty threadbare carpets; the vicar’s galoshes. And of course, “dark green and glittering, the Christmas tree”: presiding over all, doom-laden, like the Yggdrasil.
Then, heralded by woozy music, Celia’s screen sister Margaret Leighton staggers in half-cut from the London train – a svelte sequinned refugee from her Kensington flat and the impossibly glamorous world of the Associated Fashion News. Margaret exudes intoxicating fumes of Scotch, cigarettes, haute couture, expensive cosmetics and some gorgeous Paris chypre perfume. We imagine great rolling waves of fragrance, something quintessentially of the 1950’s like Malle’s Le Parfum de Therese (first formulated in 1959) full of plummy rose, pepper, clove, soft leather. Leighton was just on 30 when she made “The Holly and the Ivy”, but is so brittle, so thin, so heavily enamelled and so angstlich that she could pass for a 60 year old of today. Absolutely of her period, she is wearily and impossibly sophisticated, beautifully dressed and made up ( all from a tiny overnight grip) – apparently as exquisite and frail as an animal from a glass menagerie but much tougher than her little fur boots might suggest. Celia Johnson smells wonderfully clean I am sure, a cool dry skin moisturised with Ponds Cold Cream faintly overlaid with Vim, Dot and Ajax – but her younger sister is redolent of the world, the flesh and the devil.
I’m sure Leighton’s skin never frets and chafes with winter cold; it looks matte, hydrated and peachy – we are confident that her creamy complexion smells angelic and tastes almost edible, even when the lady is wiping the dishes where an ironically placed mirror hangs behind the kitchen door, next to the greasy range. (Is this looking glass a reminder of the mysteries of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait?). And then, Margaret Leighton’s eyes! Even in black and white: those Paul Newman/ Ginger Rogers hypnotic swimming blue eyes.
This amalgam of opposites is what the scent of Christmas is all about for me: this sense of being buffeted and sometimes overwhelmed by contrasts and memories; fair and foul, sweet and sour. Christmas sends many of us over the top with its emotional demands, the effluvia of memory; and the stress of unrealistic anticipation which reaches meltdown on New Years Eve. No wonder that the animal and the Old Adam in us goes crazy with the bombardment of odours. It sometimes feels as though a kaleidoscope of smells is being shaken up inside our heads and falling into the most unlikely patterns. Unusual circumstances can and do play havoc with our noses. So don’t judge a scent over the holiday period, whether it be a surprise gift of a new perfume, an old fragrant favourite or the smell of a new venue. Wait till your senses cool down after Twelfth Night and then take stock.