December 15, 2021

The smells of Christmas


            “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

            Yes, indeed.

            And it’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas, too.

            Thirty-eight Christmases ago, our younger son, Eric, was quoted by radio personality Paul Harvey. I had been sending him a weekly edition of our newspaper. From time to time, in his Chicago studio, he’d read snippets to his national audience.

One morning, Harvey pulled a line from my column. In his trademark cheerful voice, he said, “Eric NeSmith, in Jesup, Georgia, says, ‘It’s not Christmas unless you can smell the tree.’”

            What smells like Christmas to you?

            Steaming, spiced apple cider?

            Sugar cookies, fresh from the oven?


            Peppermint candy?

            And of course, Eric, the tree.

            For me?

            Ditto to all of the above, but you have to add oil.

            That’s right.

Since I was 12, a whiff of 3-IN-ONE oil takes me back to Christmas 1960.

            I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how I would get it.

            My mother’s brothers—Joe and Billy—didn’t have sons, so they picked me to tag along on their hunting and fishing trips. I dreamed of the day that I’d get to aim my own shotgun at a blur of bobwhite quail. But I knew that day was out there, way out there. In the meantime, I toted an unloaded Daisy BB gun. Uncles Joe and Billy watched my every step, making sure that I had absorbed their safety lectures.

Eventually, I got to stand with them behind their bird dogs and a covey. I couldn’t shoot, but they let me practice picking out a single bird and pretend I was hunting. I don’t know which quivered more, the liver-spotted pointers’ rigid tails or my heart. Unless you’ve witnessed the explosion of brown and white feathers from beneath your feet while knee-deep in a briar patch, well, words have a hard time explaining it. Just the surprise of what you know is coming is still exhilarating, all these years later.

By the time I was 10, I had graduated to a .410 single-barrel. In between coveys, I carried the unloaded shotgun, pointing to the sky or the ground. My dungaree pockets were stuffed with shells. More than ever, my uncles watched me. Mile after mile, we tromped through the Southwest Georgia woods of my kinfolks and their friends. With each step, I yearned for the quail season, when I’d have a shotgun, just like Joe and Billy’s. They called theirs a “Sweet 16.” That was my dream—a Model 12 Winchester 16-guage pump.

And that was the only thing on my 1960 Christmas wish list.

I had no idea how Santa could afford such as an extravagant item.

But my dear mother had an idea.

That Christmas season, she wrapped packages at Maxwell’s Department Store on Cherry Street. During one of her breaks, she walked next door to Harper’s Hardware. Forrest Harper has just what her 12-year-old wanted.

With a few dollars down, Mother put a Sweet 16 on layaway. On Christmas Eve, she handed over her holiday earnings to pay off the balance on the $65 purchase. Christmas morning, uncles Joe and Billy were on the phone. They might have been as excited as I was.

I can’t tell you how many cans of gun-cleaning oil that I’ve gone through in the past 61 years, but it’s going to be at least one more.

This Christmas, I’m giving myself another can of 3-IN-ONE oil.

One whiff, and I will be reminded the best gifts are always wrapped in love.