The holidays are a wonderfully gaudy time of year when festive items adorn the house. I love gathering up my favorite antique glassware and tins, collected over the years and hidden away in back cupboards, and filling them with fresh fruit, pine cones and holly sprigs. Placed throughout the house, these all-natural aromatic arrangements, along with the Christmas tree, make simple yet elegant decorations that smell just like Christmas to me.
I’m partial to an antique tin of my mother’s that has a red poinsettia painted on its lid. I cover the bottom of the tin with one of her old, hand-stitched linens, edged with delicate lace that’s white and starched, and fill it with bright orange tangerines.
My attachment to this homespun arrangement stems from my childhood when fresh tangerines were a special treat at Christmas. Unlike today, when citrus fruit is an everyday part of life, when I was growing up in rural Virginia, tangerines were a rare delicacy. Their appearance at Christmas was just as important as the holiday bird.
On Christmas Eve when I was a child, my siblings and I would wait eagerly to hear the click-click of tire chains as our father’s car climbed through the snow to the house. I remember the stamp of his boots on the porch, his red face and boisterous laugh as we welcomed him home, and the brown bag he carried chock-full of tangerines. The citrus perfume of those tangerines would fill the house!
After supper, my parents would gather us around the crackling fireplace in the living room. Dad would make dire predictions about how deep the snow would get and we’d worry about whether Santa Claus would make it to our house.
As if to alleviate our fears, Mom passed us each a tangerine. I loved the way the bumpy skin felt in my hand, the way it peeled from the fruit so easily. Each crimson section fit nicely in my mouth, a juicy burst of succulent flavor. Even if Santa didn’t make it, for me, Christmas had already arrived.
Ensconced in my memories, I make a last-minute check on tonight’s menu. My daughter and her family are expected soon, driving from their home in a distant state. As I finish setting the holiday table for tonight’s family feast, I decide to change the décor. I replace the flower centerpiece, purchased yesterday, with the antique tin full of fresh nectarines. Sitting fragrant and ripe in the place of honor, it looks right.
A light snow begins to fall just as my daughter’s car pulls into my driveway. Eyes sparkling, she comes into the house with her family, everyone carrying bags of wrapped gifts.
“What’s that wonderful smell?” she asks, giving me a warm hug.
“Oh, that’s the tangerines,” I reply, pointing to the table.
Reaching into the tin, she retrieves one glossy fruit, puts it to her nose and inhales deeply. “They smell like Christmas,” she says.
“Yes,” I smile. “Yes, they do.”