"Give me some light!" cries Hamlet's
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. "Light! Light!" cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it's dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.
The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother's childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.
With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.
By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it's darkness
we're having, let it be extravagant.
In our apartment, a Christmas tree has stood on a small, rickety table for the last three Christmases and every day in between. My new boyfriend (later husband) & I assembled and decorated it with glass soccer balls, big old-fashioned blue lights, feathered red birds, and shiny plastic stars shortly after we started seeing each other in 2005. The table is too unstable to be used for anything else so it’s become a permanent pedestal for the 3-year old, 3-foot tall tree, all nudged into a corner between a neglected fireplace and an overcrammed bookshelf. This year, we added two ornaments to the tree: black cats made for us by our young friends in Japan, Mau (or Mao, I never spell it right) and Syota. We plug it in occasionally during the holiday season to bask in the glow of what we’ve always called the “Krisha penis” tree lights while listening to suitably blue jazz. But I admit, it’s become more than a Christmas tree, it’s now some kind of domestic icon of stubbornness and quirkitude. Also, we have nowhere else to put it. There’s no closet space left even if we wanted to pack it up, so for reasons sentimental, egotistical, and practical, it has remained on the table.
Then there was that year the Christmas tree burned down.
That would have been 1994, shortly before I moved to Austria. My German boyfriend and I spent the winter holidays in a camper parked in front of his father’s Virginia home. They’d cut down a tree from the acreage around the house sometime earlier in December and, as was their tradition, decorated it on Christmas Eve with homemade paper and wooden ornaments and clip-on candle holders made of tin. Into these holders they placed small baumkerzen, or tree candles, and lit them. Real candles, real tree. I was in awe of the concept, since I’d grown up with electric lights on a variety of fake and real trees, but I had never even considered the possibility of putting real fire on a real tree inside a house and expecting it not to end in disaster.
Everything went fine until the famous twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, also known as Heilige Drei Koenige Tag (Three Kings Day), Epiphany, or Theophany, depending on your orthodoxy or flavor of Catholicism. In the evening, an additional round of presents is given while the tree is lit for the last time of the season. Some legends say that our gift-giving rituals originated in the celebration of Three Kings Day to honor the Eastern magi who arrived long after the birth of Baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gift-exchange tradition has eventually shifted to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in many Western/Protestant traditions. Either way, the Germans and Austrians still celebrate Heilige Drei Koenige and that year was my first experience of it.
Already, the tree had been up a little too long with too little water in the pan below, and we hadn’t even started singing (mumbling, in my case) the traditional carols when something sparked and the entire tree, ornaments and all, went up in an instantaneous blaze. Children screamed, doors flew open, and seconds later all that was left of the Christmas tree was a charred stick. Thinking about that scene I can still smell the smoke and the burnt needles, the havoc, the red wax all over the living room, and the elation of having averted a house fire.
Lots of people claim that they love real trees because of the scent, but that’s not the scent I associate with Christmas. When I think of “real tree smell” I involuntarily revisit the exploding tree of 1994 and the smell of wax and ash in the house afterward. Then I’m led back to the winters of my high school years which were spent in a house with a wood-burning stove that had a tricky flue. The house was frequently filled with acrid grey haze, permeating every single thing inside it and effectively forcing me to wear chimney perfume to school until the weather was warm enough to air out the house.
There’s a scented oil (also a candle) by Harry Slatkin/Henri Bendel called Firewood that gracefully approximates the smell of burning wood. Its fragrance evokes in me as much comfort and joy as loneliness and melancholy. The loneliness of my own little teenage wasteland, the comfort of sitting in front of the stove in my pajamas, soaking up the heat before jumping into a chilly bed. There’s the memory of that burning Christmas tree and the wild adventure of setting out to truly explore the world in other lands, other languages, other ways of thinking. But there’s also the tragedy of that young man’s--my former boyfriend's--death two years later and the memory that 1994 was the last Christmas his family would spend together before splintering into irretrievable shards.
Extravagant darkness. I read Jane Kenyon's poem “Taking Down the Tree” and though her tree doesn't burn, that was exactly the image she brought back to me. I love her last lines and the sense of depravity she enjoys, watching her mother mend an ornament that she and her brother have fought over and broken. Whether we always like to admit it or not, there’s a subtle joy in destruction, and I think this is what Kenyon hints at – the delight in taking things down, in creating a passage of time and putting an end to a particular season. There is dismantling, boxing, and shelving precious objects as the familiar darkness envelopes the scene. In her poem, the only ghost left by the tree is a scent – one that can only last a few minutes but which elaborates the empty darkness. (Hamlet, I am reminded, had some trouble with ghosts, too.) The Festival of Lights ends and the darkness, one of depravity, of destruction, and of strange elation, is restored.
But I don’t think I’ll take the tree down just yet.
Perfumes with a balsam fir note:
Yosh Phenomenon – Yosh Han created this “silvery reverie” of a fragrance for Sniffapalooza in New York City. It contains notes of boronia, osmanthus, silver fir, rhododendron, vetiver, and Moroccan cedar wood.
L’Artisan Parfumeur Fou d’Absinthe – Named for the icy-hot “green fairy” absinthe, this strange concoction contains notes of absinthe, star anise, dry pine, cistus, angelica flower, blackcurrant buds, clove, ginger, nutmeg, patchouli, pepper, pine needles, fir balsam. Even though the notes include pine and fir, this is less woody and more bitter than many other of L’Artisan’s offerings.
Perfumes with that love-it-or-hate-it “burned tree/wood stove/fireplace” note:
Hermes Bel Ami – My favorite “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” fragrance (not that it smells of chestnuts) and a perfect scent for this time of year. This one is marketed for men but don’t let that stop you. The staying power is extraordinary.
Bulgari Black – More lapsang suchong tea than housefire, but the scent of smoke is still in there to be found.
Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque – A masterful fragrance that sounded dreadful to me and smelled even worse until the second or third time I wore it. Then, suddenly, I felt completely at home. The name is something along the lines of “Turkish Smokehouse” and it does lend it self to imagining everything from hearthside to hookah. It is part of the non-export line and can be difficult to find in the US, but can be found through decanters such as The Perfumed Court.
Memoire Liquide Feuille d’Automne #321 – With notes of “dried leaves, pine needles, juniper berry, spruce, tree sap, moss, balsam and aromatic smoke” this one needs to be sampled to be believed. It really does smell like a burning fire in the best possible way. This line is, as far as I know, only offered in a few salons, but The Perfumed Court has decants of many ML scents.
Diptyque Feu de Bois (candle) – Named for “firewood,” this $50, 50-hour burn time candle smells just smoking firewood but isn’t nearly as decadent as roasting marshmallows over the remnants of your burning house. Order the three-piece set for $100 from Beauty Habit and you’ll have a metal lid and handy candle-trimmer scissors-thingy to impress your friends with. The Slatkin/Bendel Firewood candle is a better value, but appears to have been discontinued and is somewhat hard to find.
CB I Hate Perfume Burning Leaves – Much like Memoire Liquide above, this scent accurately captures the smell of, well, burning leaves. I know, sounds strange in a perfume but it really works if you let it. It won’t last long enough for you to get tired of but layering other scents with it is a great way to lend autumnal depth to other, brighter perfumes. It’s available as a water perfume and as an “absolute.”
L’Artisan Parfumeur Dzongha – According to Lucky Scent, Dzongha is “a mysterious fragrance inspired by the smell of the stones and incense of the Buddhist temples (the Dzongks), with notes of tanned leather, smoked tea and the evocation of fire places - around which life is organized since the climate is very hard in this region.” I haven’t sampled this one yet, but I can imagine it well. L’Artisan does the smoke note with elegance in Vanilia and Tea for Two and it sounds as though Dzongha might be an even better concept for its use.
Tauer Perfumes Lonestar Memories – Since I live in Texas but am not particularly fond of Texas, I have a real aversion to buying anything named “Lonestar Memories” because, frankly, I have more than enough of them. But having read raves of this from many reviewers whose opinions I respect, I think Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer’s smoky/leathery homage to the riders of the open plains might be in my next order of samples. Also, Mr. Tauer writes an elegant and engaging blog at Tauer Perfumes, which I highly recommend.
“Baumkerzenhalter” (Christmas tree candle holders) designed by Glasi Hergiswill, available at Form-Wohnen Switzerland
“Fire Place” by Patrick Smith at Vignetted.com
“Christmas Tree on Fire” by Jim McGuire at Jupiter Images