CURTIS BADGER: The sensory gifts of the Christmas season

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Curtis Badger

When I was a child, Christmas was always about things, lists of things.

From the time the Sears Christmas catalog arrived in October, until just a few days before the holiday, I was making lists, and checking them twice.

The toy section in the Sears catalog sparked unmitigated greed in the mind of a 10-year-old.

Now that I am older, I associate Christmas with the senses, not things. Christmas is about flavors and sights.

It is the aroma of cedar, the sounds of Heaven and nature singing in unison.

We usually spent Christmas at my grandmother’s house, and the voices and laughter of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles are the sounds of Christmas that I consider a precious gift.

All of them are gone now. But I can still see their faces. And I can hear their voices.

My grandmother had a modern kitchen with all the conveniences, but she kept a wood-burning cookstove in the basement, which she called the cellar.

Whenever a special meal was planned, it would mean multiple trips to the cellar. The turkey, ham, and yeast rolls were all the product of the wood stove.

The warm aroma of oak wood and ham would rise and press against the low ceiling of Grandma’s cellar like a fragrant cloud.

And then someone would open the cellar door and it would rush down the hallway to the dining room, announcing its great promise.

I can remember only two gifts I received at Christmas. The 26-inch Western Flyer was my first new bicycle.

It came from the Western Auto store in Onancock and had a battery-powered headlight.

I got a pair of L.L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoes when I was 14. It was a gift marked with symbolism, noting that my parents believed my feet had stopped growing and it was now safe to buy me grown-up footwear.

They were right. Those size 10 boots with the rubber snow-tread bottoms got me through a decade of quail hunts.

What I remember about Christmas are the things I could see, smell, and feel. We always got a cedar Christmas tree from the marsh on my grandfather’s farm.

I would crawl under the tree with the hand saw, the aroma of cedar pungent on a winter day, and as I sawed the trunk at ground level, little spurs of cedar fell and collected under the collar of my jacket.

My neck would itch for the rest of the day. The aroma of cedar is Christmas. It is the sensory gift that the season brings.

We would drag the tree out of the marsh and drive it home in the back of the truck, and then put it up in the living room, where it would lend its fragrance to the entire house, mixing now and then with the breakfast aroma of frying bacon and salted fish slow-cooking in a cast-iron skillet.

Some years the tree would have a cocoon hidden within its branches, and after a few days of warmth, we would find our gift of miniature praying mantises among the presents beneath the tree.

The tree was like a member of the family for a fortnight or so, until the sweetness of Christmas played out and we returned to schools and jobs, and the Christmas toys went into the box in the closet with last year’s toys.

Then the lights and decorations would be gathered and stored, and the old tree, dry and crisp, would be dragged across the room, leaving a trail of cedar spurs, and it would go out into the yard and under the bird feeder.

There it would stay until the grass needed mowing in late March or early April, and all this time it would support a family of white-throated sparrows that would hunt for spilled sunflower seeds and sing their plaintive song.

— Curtis J. Badger is a Delmarva native who majored in English at Salisbury University and, with the exception of four years traveling as a U.S. Air Force photojournalist, has enjoyed a career photographing and writing about his native coast. His books include “Salt Tide: Cycles and Currents of Life Along the Coast,” “Bellevue Farm: Exploring Virginia’s Coastal Countryside,” and many others. He lives in Accomack County.

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