Last summer, while I was walking through Istanbul with a couple friends, I couldn’t help myself. Even though it was easily ninety degrees outside, I started the Christmas Song. You know the one, “Although it has been said many times, many ways, ‘Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to you.’” There was absolutely no way to avoid it. My Christmas senses had been triggered and they needed a release. Why is that? Because I had just walked by a vendor selling chestnuts that were being roasted on an open fire. Of course, I wasn’t the only one who had started thinking of this song. We all had to turn around and buy some. I don’t even like chestnuts. They are OK, but the taste isn’t really my thing. I’d just as soon roast them and then feed them to the squirrels, pigeons, or whatever other random vermin (or kids) happen to be running around nearby. I am sure they would be much more appreciative of a warm snack. For me, it isn’t about the taste. It is all about the smell.
There’s actually a lot of science demonstrating that our strongest and most poignant memories are the ones triggered by smell. The Proust phenomenon states that memories triggered by smell will always be more accurate, more detailed, and accompanied by stronger emotional attachments than memories triggered by other senses. Many studies, including one I was reading by the National Institute of Health, have demonstrated the truth of this claim. They have even begun to measure just how much stronger smell-related memories can be. The reason for this is because of where in the brain our smells are processed and interpreted. It is right next to the areas of the brain dealing with memories and emotions. In fact, the scent actually passes through both these areas (the amygdala and hippocampus) when traveling from the nose to the brain. In other words, there is an emotion and a memory that has been triggered even before you realize what it is you are smelling. You might be yawning, but I think this stuff is cool.
The thing that I really love about this truth ho it applies to Christmas. There are some very unique smells I associate with the holiday season. Of course, the first and earliest scent in the season of smells is that of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. I guess technically it is more of a fall, Halloween, Thanksgiving smell. Still, it is one that tells me that time is drawing near. In fact, I’m actually drinking one right now as I sit at a Starbucks here in Antep. I am also typing away and listening to Michael Bublé to help reinforce that smell even deeper with Christmas. Like many memories, this one is bittersweet. It brings me back to another Starbucks on the Vestal Parkway with David Payne. Typically, his wife, son, and occasionally one or two other people would be with us, but for some reason, this time it was just the two of us. He is sharing some memories that date back before I was even born, and from there we move off into other deep conversations. I’ve always respected him, but in this short time together, that respect grew exponentially. This will be one of the first Christmases his family will celebrate without him. He has finally lost a long, hard-fought battle with cancer.
Sticking with Starbucks, it is actually their version of apple cider that brings me closer to Christmastime. The very first time I had this drink, I fell in love. Even though it has no caffeine, this drink has always been my favorite. Honestly, I don’t even know what it is officially called because, in thought and conversation, I have always referred to it as “caramel apple goodness.” Easily a decade or more back, I decided I was going to try and replicate this drink on my own. This began a tradition of me experimenting and playing around with various mixtures and combinations of my own apple cider. I would then take these creations with me both to my mom’s house and to the Hampton’s (uncle, aunt, cousins) for all our holiday celebrations. Every time I smell cinnamon and apple, it brings me back to my old kitchen. Like a mad scientist, I have a large pot being held close to a boil while I add bits of lemon, caramel, cinnamon, ginger, cranberry, and nutmeg to the hot beak-n-skiff cider. I actually do have exact proportions written down in my closet, but I haven’t yet tried to make the stuff since moving to Turkey.
Roasting ham, pine needles, straight cinnamon, candy cane coffee, old spice, gingerbread, even stale popcorn… these are all additional smells that can immediately trigger other Christmas memories. I am actually finding it hard at this point to continue to write as my headphones play on, now with Josh Groban. Just the thought of these smells is causing one memory after another to wash over me. We have popcorn meant for stringing, but I am a naughty little boy in my red footy pajamas trying to stuff the popcorn into my sister’s ear. I’m sitting at the kitchen table on Ronnie Lane with a candy cane sticking out of my coffee cup reading while at least half the family is watching It’s A Wonderful Life. (What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down.) A couple days after Christmas, it is maybe three or four in the morning at our house on Stafford Ave. I’m about to go down and play a few hours of Load Runner on the Commodore 64. I want to get as much playing time as possible before anyone comes to tell me to get off that machine and go do something productive. Before playing, I want to make myself some toast. Unfortunately, the cinnamon I used didn’t have sugar mixed in. I eat it anyways. We are at my uncle’s house, picking out a tree to cut. It looks perfect out in the field, but when we get to the house, we realize the tree is a couple of feet too tall.
There are so many beautiful memories that are born in Christmas past. What are some of yours? What new memories will be born this holiday season? I know there will be many. When you get to one of those moments where “peace on earth, goodwill to men” becomes more than just a phrase, stop. Pause. Close your eyes and breathe in deep. Smell that? What is it? You have just sealed that memory and emotion into your mind and heart in the best and most efficient possible way.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by the choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny little tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight
They know that Santa’s on his way
He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And every mother’s child is going to spy
To see if reindeer’s really know how to fly
And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it’s been said many times, many ways
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas to you