Nothing quite triggers memory like aromas. Christmas memories are replete with them: pine wreaths, bayberry candles, a roasting Christmas turkey or goose, incense at midnight mass (or kids throwing up at midnight mass). These are usually imprinted on us early in life, as was the case of my most powerful mnemonic aroma: snow melting on wool clothing. It’s just as evocative of Christmas today as it was, I remember, the first time, in
. . . Christmas 1944
Like many four-year-olds in 1944 I went to my bed on Christmas Eve with great anticipation, still innocently credulous that there was indeed a Santa Claus who knew precisely what chintzy wartime toys we had wished for. My parents, grandparents, and other members of our extended Italian-American household of around fifteen members were assembled downstairs with their own anticipations.
I don’t remember “visions of sugar plums” dancing in my head, but I had then, and have had since, with some substitutions, my own kaleidoscope of seasonal sensations: pungent pine resin and scents of candles and log fires, the aura of colored lights refracted through crystallized windows, snippets of dialogue fromA Miracle on 34th Street, and square, Georgian notes floating in the incense-thickened air of midnight mass.
In such sensory overload I dropped into slumber to allow the jolly old fellow to arrive and do his thing. With a premonitory inkling that my curiosity might prematurely explode the myth I had suspended any desire to witness his visit.
But something happened that particular Christmas Eve that retains a mnemonic indelibility over forty-some years since. Sometime in that night my grandmother gently shook me awake. “Somebody wants to say ‘hello’ to you,” I heard her say in the haze of half-slumber. The room was dark, and for a moment I considered that I might be some special, chosen child who would actually get to meet St. Nick.
But the figure silhouetted in the doorway was neither bearded nor pot-bellied, but shaven and muscular. As he approached my bed I could feel the cold still clinging to his clothes. Still in half-shadow I could detect that his coat wasn’t red, but an olive drab Eisenhower jacket decorated with an 8th Army insignia, sergeant’s stripes, and campaign ribbons from North Africa and the European theater.
My Christmas Eve visitor hadn’t come from the North Pole, but from the far away invasion beaches of Southern Italy, where most of his outfit had been wiped out in some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II.
“Your uncle Marco is home on furlough from the war,” my grandmother said, holding the arm of her son and the best Christmas present she would ever get. My uncle leaned down to give me a hug say he would see me in the morning. I returned to sleep not sure that it had all happened. But to this day I cannot smell the distinct aroma of melted snow on wool without a flood of memories of my uncle Marco.
The following morning my uncle joined us kids in playing with our toys. One of those toys, a cheap little tin model car broke open, exposing that it was made from a Budweiser beer can, and stamped “made in Japan.” I don’t think I was old enough to appreciate the irony in my uncle’s smile; but I seem to recollect that by the following Christmas I no longer believed there was a Santa Claus.
©1990, ©2003, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.20.2003)
Radio Essay No. 56, Aired, KPBS-FM, Dec 23, 1990