A Christ­mas jour­ney of scents and sen­si­bil­i­ties

Smells, hid­ing presents, pick­ing a tree among memories

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Jac­ques Kelly jac­ques.kelly@balt­sun.com

Iam a fan of the grad­ual and de­lib­er­ate Christ­mas, one that starts slow and lasts into the mid­dle of Jan­uary. In this mind­set, the day and week­end af­ter Thanks­giv­ing is part of the pro­gres­sion of days in hol­i­day preparation.

When I was grow­ing up, my fam­ily shopped on foot. They car­ried their Christ­mas loot home and stashed it in secret cor­ners of the cel­lar.

Of course, I knew all their hid­ing places. I found many rea­sons to in­ves­ti­gate a cold cav­ity un­der the front porch at this time of the year.

The first sign of Christ­mas magic in my youth was the odd scent from the kitchen. Early in the morn­ing my grand­mother was brown­ing flour for her fruit­cakes. Those cakes, with all the dic­ing and minc­ing of can­died fruits and nuts, plus the long bak­ing time, were her most com­pli­cated bak­ing or­deal of the year.

She knocked the fruit­cake chores off early in the sea­son — so the brandy could work some magic. I think she also started early be­cause the bat­ter was so thick it some­times bested the mo­tor in her elec­tric mixer. More than once she sent my­fa­ther on an er­rand to a 25th Street elec­tric shop. This “mo­tor hos­pi­tal” could al­ways make an overnight fix.

I also as­so­ciate the hol­i­days with the scent of pine wood be­ing sawed. My fa­ther and his brother-in-law would be busy in our cel­lar mak­ing a home­made Bal­ti­more Christ­mas gar­den — a train gar­den — in the days af­ter Thanks­giv­ing.

Each year they added some new fea­ture on the train plat­form. One time my fa­ther repli­cated the Penn­syl­va­nia Turn­pike. The road was poster board; the tun­nels were wood scraps from the Arun­del Lum­ber Co. on York Road. Only the ac­tual elec­tric trains came from a store. Some years they dug live moss for land­scap­ing verisimil­i­tude.

When the gar­den was fi­nally un­veiled Christ­mas morn­ing, it was worth the month I spent spy­ing on its cre­ation. (It was sup­posed to be a secret.)

The old Me­mo­rial Sta­dium, a beloved Bal­ti­more land­mark, saw its park­ing lot to­ward Ed­nor Road turned into an out­door greens sale. Run by vol­un­teers for an eyesight char­ity, it was a calm and re­as­sur­ing place to buy a tree. There was a selection of aro­matic bal­sams piled along the sta­dium wall. The sell­ers were en­thu­si­as­tic am­a­teurs who vol­un­teered their time.

I’d select a tree on a De­cem­ber af­ter­noon and glance at the sky­line down­town, grate­ful that part of Waverly of­fered a tran­quil place to com­plete a Christ­mas rit­ual un­bur­dened by com­mer­cial­ism. The wiring task ahead was daunt­ing, but I would worry about that later. It was not un­usual to ob­serve pa­trons car­ry­ing their trees home on buses and street­cars.

Down­town Bal­ti­more’s dec­o­rated depart­ment store win­dows along Howard Street Joe Mackin ties his tree to the roof of his car af­ter pur­chas­ing it at the Christ­mas tree sale at Me­mo­rial Sta­dium. This was once a com­mon sight in Bal­ti­more. beck­oned crowds af­ter Thanks­giv­ing. I re­mem­ber them well — but some­thing that stands out vividly in the De­cem­bers of my youth ac­tu­ally ran un­der that street.

The Bal­ti­more and Ohio Rail­road hosted a one-night event: We arrived at a long train of pas­sen­ger cars at the plat­form at Cam­den Sta­tion. Scores of en­thu­si­as­tic chil­dren and their par­ents boarded the coaches and found seats for a 45-minute trip that be­gan in the mys­te­ri­ous Howard Street Tun­nel.

We passed Mount Royal Sta­tion and emerged in Rem­ing­ton, then passed through Waverly and Clifton Park. Soon we were cross­ing the Susque­hanna River be­fore reach­ing our des­ti­na­tion in Ce­cil County.

Ev­ery­one climbed off the train. There was no sta­tion plat­form here, but the rail­road pro­vided step stools. We all gath­ered in a field. As a B&O em­ployee glee club broke into “Silent Night,” the lights flashed on a tow­er­ing holly tree.

We all gasped — and wished Christ­mas could come ev­ery month.


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