Catholic Free Press

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  • Nov
  • 29

The familiar aromas of Christmas

Posted By November 29, 2012 | 1:12 pm | Lead Story #3
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Senior Scene
By Bob Cronin

Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right to be writing a title like that, even though we have just celebrated Thanksgiving and the Christmas lights have been up in all the neighborhoods for more than a week now. It seems that the older one gets, the shorter the time between the Fourth of July and Christmas. And it seems that this is the season that brings out that wide sentimental streak in all of us, no matter whether we are 80 or 18 or even 8.
We all recognize that Christmas has its roots as an essentially religious holiday celebrating the birth of Christ come to earth to save mankind, yet our celebration and observance of the day has a definite family quality about it.  If we would let it, Christmas could be totally lost in the commercialism that has grown up around it, and even now merchandising has threatened to swallow Thanksgiving. After we adhere to our religious obligations on the holy day, let us not forget those essential family ties which have always made Christmas so dear, so meaningful to each of us.
When you spend a few minutes thinking back on Christmas past, many of our recollections are really very sensual ones. It takes no great imagination to picture Christmas lights on trees we have had in the past, wreaths on front doors or holly on the mantle. While you cannot actually touch the spirit of Christmas, one easily senses the hustle and bustle that increases by the day as we approach December 25th. And we are acutely aware of the approaching day the first time we hear Bing Crosby croon “White Christmas” or hear Nat King Cole sing “Oh Tannenbaum.”
I have read that the sense of smell is supposed to be the strongest when it comes to bringing back memories, and in this case, I truly believe it. If you have ever cut down your own tree or had a live tree trimmed, what is more reminiscent of Christmas than the smell of the fresh sap oozing from the trimmed branches? And what more typifies the day than the aromas we all treasure of turkey and gravy and stuffing or other traditional holiday meals eaten with relatives and friends, many or most now long gone?
The day before Christmas in my time was what was referred to as a “black fast” on which no meat could be eaten. In point of fact, it was not a fast day, but rather a day of abstinence, on which fish was the menu. But in our house it had to be a special fish, a Gaelic concoction called “finnan haddie,” essentially fresh caught haddock smoked fresh over a green wood fire. It was smoked to preserve the fish which then needed no refrigeration and could be easily transported to market and to America and to our table.
As far as Dad was concerned, Christmas eve and “finnan haddie” were inseparable. His father was from County Cork and, I guess that it was practically a matter of confession if Corkmen did not have “finnan haddie” that evening. And my father was brought up on the tradition and, so, Christmas eve was the observance of the “black fast” and you know what the meal was. That’s right!
Even as a youngster it was apparent to me that this was not an ordinary evening meal. Mom always had a little less to say and usually did not eat very much of her one-night creation. That was a good thing too, because by the time Dad had finished there wasn’t much of the smoked haddock left, and, if there should be, I’d finish it off. I learned to love that smoky treasure of the sea and I go out of my way occasionally to try and find it in a seafood restaurant but never with much luck.
What my mother found so objectionable to the dinner was the smoky smell. My grandmother lived on the second floor of the three decker and the green wood smell was as strong up there as it was on the first floor and it was probably the same for the Scotts who lived on the top floor.  While I didn’t pay any attention to it in those days you could probably get the wafting fish/smoke smell up as far as Leavitt’s drug store. But as far as I was concerned that once-a-year dinner was something to look forward to.
We always had a live tree for Christmas and you know how great the aroma of a fresh tree can be. There is just no mistaking the fact that you have a real tree and there’s nothing like that fresh odor. Well, it used to take our fresh tree about three days to overpower the smoky remnant smell of the “finnan hadie” and have things return to normal. Then Dad and I could look forward to that same meal next year.
Dad died when I was 11. Needless to say I never suggested that we have the same Christmas Eve meal and for the next few years we had scalloped oysters or oyster stew or some such formulation. I knew that we were never “lace curtain” Irish but for those few years we did make it into the “oysters on Christmas eve” bracket.
I hope that your Christmases past were as happy and as memorable, even to the recollections of smoky fish, as some of mine were. May this Christmas and all of those to come be happy and blessed affairs rich with memories of family and friends. Merry Christmas to all, to your families and friends and those who mean the most to you.  God Bless!