The Scent of Christmas

I’ve a love affair that has survived for seven decades. And I have a hint on how it all began. This love has manifested itself in curious ways, and each time it does so with the same sense that leads to fully dedicated sales counters in the best of boutiques and fancy stores. Meaning, the perfume counter fortified by finely dressed women armed with small, delicate sample bottles designed through various engineered methods to emit just enough scent to convince the buyer of the amorous love promised by the whiffs within.

My loved scent certainly lacked the promise of amorous love. It has affected me much differently, and has carried me through the building of numerous Adirondack chairs, 18 canoes and a couple of tables; a scent that also helps line haughty closets and the most desirable wooden saunas. Confused? No need to be, for I speak, of course, of scent of cedar. Like the young woman in the ridiculous car ad, “I love it!” 

My hint dates back to my childhood when on our farm in the wooded hills of Northeastern Missouri we would choose, then saw what we hoped was a perfect Eastern Red Cedar for our Christmas tree, and how later, once squeezed through the door and clamped into the red holder with the green legs, the scent of the small tree would suddenly fill the rooms for a few weeks of magic.

It took awhile, and a bit of driving, but I finally found a cedar tree around here that would pass the family test!

Of course, I feel deeply in love!

Cedars were our choice of trees for Christmas, and frankly, we knew no other. My town friends had oddly looking trees bearing little if any such scent, and I wondered how they could possibly miss such an aromatic sense on a beautiful holiday season. Just recently I surprised to learn that most of the evergreen trees sold at Christmas are actually harvested in the heat of the summer and placed in storage until it’s time to go to market. Which means like potatoes, peanuts and an amazing array of other items, these tress are obviously preserved with a smörgåsbord of chemicals to keep them “fresh.” This offers a fair possibility of why when we bought a tree for Christmas when my own children were small I would suddenly develop a “Christmas cold!”

Looking back over the years, though, there wasn’t much about those trees, regardless of species, that brought a tear of memory or a smile of joy. They were just, well, trees. Our cedar trees back home offered a real scent rather than some faint Pine-sol smell that was likely sprayed onto the trees to mask the preservatives. 

Nowadays, due perhaps to the warming climate, our idled lands along the unfarmed hillsides around here are being invaded by these same Eastern Red Cedars, and, indeed, they are quite invasive. Those lovely hills around the outcrops of the Minnesota River from Granite Falls on downriver seem inundated with hundreds of the invasive Red Cedars per acre. This led to some pretty heavy eradication efforts over the years, which has been somewhat successful. We’re now seeing more and more of the same invasion around here, and yes, some are very tall and mature, meaning they have been here for awhile.

Many of the cedars had been feasted on by deer in our immediate neighborhood, meaning a decorated step ladder might have been a better choice!

In our neck of the former prairie you would be hard pressed to find one worthy of display for the deer have rendered most helplessly too ugly for a Christmas tree harvest. The very tops may have survived the munching though not the heart of the tree. 

We didn’t see the same affect back home. For us back on the farm it wasn’t unique to make note of Christmas tree possibilities throughout the year while doing chores and farm work. Among the criteria was having a well rounded confirmation, meaning there were no “holes” in the girth of the tree. A perfect cedar rarely existed. If a portion of the tree did have a “hole,” that part would be turned to the wall and away from view. 

Indeed, there was some debate and conversation shortly after Thanksgiving on which of the trees we’d noted to cut. Each of us seemed to have the perfect find. A hay or feed wagon was hooked to a tractor along with a saw on a Saturday morning and off we would go tree hunting until one passed consensus. Besides confirmation a perfect tree couldn’t be too tall nor too wide to push through the door, though those accommodations were often addressed on the front porch. 

A good pounding was alway necessary to shake off dead needles before the tree was hoisted into the wagon and would be repeated just outside the door for good measure before the tree made an inside appearance. Sometimes that sufficed, although most times it seemed that the squeeze through would fill a dustpan at least once. 

While the outcrops and hills down river are inundated with the invasive Eastern Red Cedar, there are signs that the warming climate has created an opening further north.

Once the right height was reached, which meant taking the tree back outside at least once or twice, causing more needle drop, the tree was then “screwed” into place by the three screws in the stand and stood in place. Hopefully it stood straight without cause for further adjustment. By then the cedar scent would be filling the air as we stood in admiration and typically proclaimed this was our most beautiful tree ever. Then the decorating would begin, which as the years rolled by, typically fell to my now late brother and sister. 

We were not unique, for over the years of putting together a story for Christmas for the various newspapers I’ve learned there were many alternatives used for the celebration. In the High Plains ancestors of the original settlers used sage brush or tumble weeds. Locales offered different ideas and concepts such as artistically stacked branches, wall hangings, chalked drawings and even decorated step ladders. Santa apparently didn’t care whether it was cedar or chalk, stacked branches or even the step ladder, for Christmas didn’t always center around the commercial fir, spruce or pine trees.

This is more typical of the invasive Eastern Red Cedar on a nearby hillside.

Our last Christmas together for my parents and siblings was in the late 1970s and we once again found a beautiful small cedar to decorate my parent’s old farm house. This was in the midst of the Mother Earth News era, and we made garlands of cranberries and popped popcorn which my nephews, then in grade school, seemed to love stringing. Yes, they had driven in from Virginia, as did my brother and his partner from Houston, my sister and her husband from New Mexico, and us from Colorado. A few years later my brother would die of AIDs, and my brother-in-law would suffer a “Monday morning heart attack.” 

Yet that one Christmas, my last with a cut cedar, was full of joy and love, with family cheer and laughter and my mother laying out a beautiful spread of her traditional food … all fully accented by a scent I’ve carried with me for all these years  — that unmistakable scent of cedar. That Christmas cedar! 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “The Scent of Christmas

  1. A very touching (or should I say scented) story, John. When James and I were first married, rather than spend any of our scarce cash on a tree, we would drive over to our land on the hillside of the Minnesota River valley and cut down a small cedar. They were never symmetrical or as full as a commercial tree, but had a lovely scent. And because they were freshly cut, we kept them well past Wisemen’s Day each year. One year we decorated with red and white hearts for Valentine’s Day. Thanks for your story.

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