Zorro should have shown up on our front porch on Christmas Eve, or at the very least Ramona and Alejandro. A Mexican Christmas was very unique to our Irish American family. The night before Christmas we had enchiladas and chili rellenos for dinner. Then we would go out in the back yard and knock the heck out of a piñata. Mom would wind down the evening by reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” to me and my cousins and we would sip on spicy Mexican hot chocolate, munch on Pan de Polvo (Mexican cookies) and beg to stay up just a little bit longer. My mother who was born in Carthage Missouri was so taken with the Latin culture and history of Los Angeles that she decided our Christmas Eve would always have an early California theme to honor the Spanish founders of the state and the traditions of that lost romantic time.
(Mexican Christmas Piñata)
Around nine p.m. my very glamorous Aunt Betty (whom I was sure was a movie star in the daytime when she wasn’t being a nurse at night.) would put my cousins and I to bed with a hug and a special word for each of us. And for the next two hours Uncle Bud would be sent in every fifteen minutes to tell us to shut up and go to sleep.
Come Christmas morning at the pre crack of dawn the Mexican Christmas flew out the window as we three boys slid down the banister right into a traditional Christmas. A big hubbub around the Christmas tree as presents were ripped open to reveal ether that thing you wanted more than life itself, or a pair of socks. After the madness subsided and our fathers were set to assembling this or putting the batteries into that, Mom and Aunt Betty and Granny would get breakfast ready.
(Uncle Bud and Aunt Betty, Exposition Park Los Angeles 1948)
All of this was part of our family tradition. Yet there was one tradition each year that stood out to me later in life as something unique and very special. There was Uncle Bud who was married to Aunt Betty, and then there was Uncle Buddy who was Mom and Aunt Betty’s brother. He was not married, a little intimidating and very mysterious to me. He always showed up just after breakfast and while we kids were playing with new toys he would sit Mom, Aunt Betty and Granny down in the living room. Amidst the knee deep mess of Christmas paper and tattered ribbons he would do the most amazing thing every year which went unnoticed by me until the Christmas of 1961.
I looked up from my Spartacus Gladiator game to see my mother’s face. She was glowing and looking more beautiful than I have ever noticed before. Everything seems to shift to soft focus. Uncle Buddy was handing her a small white box with a black ribbon around it. Then he handed one to Aunt Betty, she was glowing too! And then the last box to Granny who was near angelic in her shimmering smile and just a hint of a tear in her eye. Very deliberately, simultaneously and slowly they each opened the presents. The lights from the Christmas tree glittered and refracted off the small glass bottles that were gently pulled from the white boxes. They were filled with a golden liquid and at the sight of them the women, my Mother, my Aunt and my Grandmother would exclaim. “Oh Buddy you shouldn’t have.”
But he did do it, and he did it every year. He gave the three women he loved more than anyone else for his entire life the one thing they adored; a small precious bottle of Chanel No.5. Eau de Toilette.
They dabbed a little behind each ear and the room was infused with the most wonderful smell. They hugged Uncle Buddy and thanked him for giving them the one thing they really wanted. And so they were set for the coming year. Each bottle was placed on a vanity and held the prized spot there. They were nurtured and used sparingly and made to last exactly 364 days.
I leaned that day in 1961 the power, allure and magic of perfume and how it could change everything. And that is why when ever I smell Chanel No.5 it smells just like Christmas to me.
Oh yes I forgot to tell you, after dinner on Christmas day we would have a good old fashioned table raising séance. We were a family of many unusual Christmas traditions.
(Chanel No5 ad circa 1961)