The Scent of Balsam

The simplest thing can bring on the flood.

A song. A scent. The shiny red-green-gold beads in a strand of garland.

It’s Christmastime, and for me, sentiment comes easy.

Putting up the tree triggers the memories, doesn’t it? Last weekend we brought this year’s balsam fir in through the front door and danced her to the corner of the living room where a you’ll-only-need-one-for-your-lifetime tree stand from LL Bean—twenty pounds of cast iron—awaited. Tree standSix feet tall and beautifully proportioned, we positioned her with a relative minimum of fussing about whether she was leaning this way or that, offered her a drink and began the long, memory-filled process of unwrapping the ornaments.

The Eiffel Tower reminding us of a trip to Paris.

The shamrock from Ireland.

The sea glass garlands discovered in a shop in Deer Isle.

The cowgirl hat and western bird ornaments bought in Arizona.

The Quebec flag shaped like a heart.

The Red Sox 2004 World Series commemorative championship ornament. (Okay, okay, and the 2007 and 2013 ones, too, and perhaps Santa will bring me this year’s in my stocking.)

But the ornaments that really bring on the torrent of memories are the old-school ones.

Santa on his sleigh

Santa on his magical sleigh

The fragile tin balls shaped like planets and moons. The shiny reindeer with antlers, ready to pull that sleigh full of gifts.

Santa himself, reins in hand, about to embark on his magical trip around the world.

Speaking of Santa, a ramble through an old scrapbook suggests I was a bit intimidated the first time I met him face to face.


with Santa

I was either skeptical or terrified.

From this photo I’m guessing I’d just turned three. My blond sister appears to be reciting her list while I look like I’m getting ready to run for my life.

A few years later—the date on the letter tells me I was six years and six days old—I’d gotten over my fear of St. Nick.  Despite my confusion about the interchangeability of the letters “d” and “t,” Santa did bring me a drum that year. Shockingly, on or about December 26 it disappeared, a Buchanan family mystery still unresolved.the letter

I don’t know if I got the unnamed doll or her more popular cousin Nancy Nurse, but it’s possible. The ball and the col(l)oring book are probable. Thanks to the miracle of the internet I learned in the course of writing this post that Gobs o’ Fun was sort of a slime thing. As for a GoGoGo, I have no clue.

The scrapbook also holds a collection of the obligatory photo Christmas cards. My much-older brother opted out eventually, leaving the smiling to me and my sisters.

The choirboy and choirgirl candles often played a starring role, as did the manger, which you can see in the background in this shot.

posing with choirsingers

That’s me on the right, in my all-time favorite Christmas dress.

The manger was of my mother’s treasured possessions, and I was afraid to touch the delicate baby Jesus made of wax, but had a great time introducing the wooden cows and the oxen to my pals Gumby and Pokey.

On Christmas morning the manger played a central role. Rumor had it some kids were allowed to rush for the tree as soon as they woke up, but we Buchanan girls were expected to comb our hair, brush our teeth and wait for our teenaged brother to drag himself out of bed. After a seemingly interminable wait, my father went downstairs and plugged in the tree. When we finally descended, my sisters and I were marched across the living room where we knelt in front of that manger and said our morning prayers. My parents and big brother knelt behind us, poised to redirect a wandering gaze away from the unwrapped gifts and back to the nativity scene.

It was excruciating.

Later in the morning there were mutton pies (a subject for my St. Patrick’s Day post perhaps), and all day long the house was filled with aunts and uncles and cousins. Once we kids were good and sugared up from eating all the ribbon candy from the fancy glass dishes in the living room, the small hill in our backyard became the tryout run for new sleds and flying saucers.


My younger sister Kate, possibly on the hunt for for ribbon candy.

Memories of those carefree days were constant this week, brought on by Bing Crosby singing Silver Bells, the scent of balsam perfuming the house and that gorgeous, shiny beaded garland, handed down from Diane’s grandmother.

I wish you happiness this season, whatever holidays you may celebrate, and a joyous, peaceful, wonderful new year.

To the readers of this blog: What are your favorite holiday memories? Please let us know in the comments.

Brenda Buchanan is the author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series, featuring a diehard Maine newspaper reporter who covers the crime and courts beat. Three books—QUICK PIVOT, COVER STORY and TRUTH BEAT—are available everywhere e-books are sold. She is writing a new series that has as its protagonist a Portland criminal defense lawyer willing to take on cases others won’t touch in a town to which she swore she would never return.


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12 Responses to The Scent of Balsam

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Lovely memories, Brenda! My family also had rules for Christmas morning …. everyone dressed before we went downstairs to the tree — then we could open stockings, have a breakfast of filet mignon and stolen (in later years we added champagne) and THEN open gifts, one at a time so everyone could see what everyone else was unwrapping. I continued those traditions with my girls .. and just yesterday bought this year’s filets. Some traditions withstand time ….Have a wonderful holiday!

  2. kaitlynkathy says:

    Lovely memories, Brenda. We had a choir in candles, too, including one large one (the minister). We never lit them, but eventually they lost their shape from being stored in a place that wasn’t cold enough. Years later I went on eBay and found some there in the collectibles. My new choir lives year round in front of the books on one of my bookshelves.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      How wonderful that you also had those little choir singer candles. It was key not to store them in an attic or other hot place. We never lit ours either. It would have meant burning their sweet little heads!

  3. Great post! Two of my memories are listening to the 78 rpm record of Christmas in Killarney and the hand made and painted character ornaments we got from my mom’s former boss Dr. Rudof Koster. How many can say that the Dragons of Blueland decorated their tree?

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Christmas in Killarney was in regular rotation at our house, too. “The holly green and the ivy green, the prettiest picture you’ve ever seen . . . ” Those ornaments must have been marvelous. Do you still have any of them?

  4. Nikki Andrews says:

    So many memories, Brenda. Growing up, we always had to sing Happy Birthday to Baby Jesus before opening gifts. Fastest HB song ever! Nowadays it’s The Nutcracker in the car, with me knitting frantically on the final hat or sock. And my sister and I both got drums one year; Dad asked what we thought was inside them…and they never got put back together.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Clever Dad! I suspect if I went back to my childhood home and asked to check the attic I’d find mine there, tucked among the rafters since 1963. Happy Christmas, Nikki!

  5. Richard Cass says:

    Reminding me of my favorite memory–about five years old and having my parents wake me in the middle of the night to try on cowboy boots “for the little boy down the street.” Never did figure out how they knew he had the same shoe size I did. Thanks, Brenda!

  6. bethc2015 says:

    My aunt decorated some packages for us with figures cut from construction paper on the boxes. I remember a caroler and Santa Claus.These enchanted me as i saw them under the tree each day. Thanks for sharing your memories and inviting others.

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