Ghosts of Christmas Past

Smells…often they’re the best memory triggers of all. My nostrils fill with the hot piney smell of an Australian Christmas tree, and I am back in my childhood, seeing my father reaching up to the very top of the ceiling-high tree, sighing with satisfaction as he carefully fixes the star.

It is a ritual every year on the 23rd December, the day Dad finishes work early so he can come home and decorate the tree. In the very sound of the word Christmas, I can smell the tree–even though it’s a traditional Norway spruce, the heat gives it a peculiarly Australian smell. I can hear the crackle of cellophane used to wrap presents, I can smell the candles at Midnight Mass and the perfumes of incense and ladies’ scents as we walk up to the communion rail.

Northern Hemisphere people, with Northern Hemisphere nostalgia, my parents nevertheless adapted Christmas to the Australian climate. The French tradition of ‘reveillon’ or vigil, was kept up, because it makes so much more sense to have a lavish Christmas feast in the cool of midnight rather than in the stifling blanket of summer midday. And the feast is suited to the climate, too–no hot turkey or boiled pudding here, but cold meats, pates, seafood, salads, and my mother’s version of Buche de Noel, the traditional French Christmas log cake—hers is an uncooked, cold, luscious delight concocted from powdered sponge fingers, butter, eggs, and strong black coffee, and covered in melted chocolate (recipe follows!) Home-made chocolate truffles and amandines–an almond sweet–sit in gilt bowls, and slices of summer fruit glow gently in glass.

It starts with the decorating of the tree, our terrible, almost unbearable excitement. The huge tree is dragged into the livingroom and rested gently in the pot. Nothing is left to chance; the tree steadied with earth, giving an impression of life; the pot, an old bucket chosen for its strength, is covered with paper. Slowly, dad gets out the boxes of decorations, kept in an upstairs cupboard for the rest of the year. Carefully, he lays them out. We are all eyes, recognising old friends–delicate blown baubles of thin glass, so thin that a whisper will shatter them; sleek satin birds with golden eyes; Byzantine-eyed angels blowing trumpets; satin balls woven in multicoloured threads; a gauzy star.

The last box of all he opens reverently–inside it nestle the clay figures of the Nativity Scene, who every year play out their sacred story of marvel and mystery and hope, without seeming to get tired of it. “Jesus was born in a cave, not a stable,” Dad tells us every year, as he carefully constructs a cave from a couple of bush rocks. He arranges Mary and Joseph carefully in the cave. But Jesus isn’t born yet. It’s only the 23rd December. So the little clay Baby in his little clay cradle stays in his tissue paper, until the morning of the 25th, when he mysteriously appears between his parents.

As to the shepherds–they are out of sight behind the rock until the evening of Christmas Day itself. “They didn’t arrive till the evening,’ Dad assures us. And in the evening, there they are, kneeling endlessly in the midst of the tiny cave, their clay faces full of mute wonder. But the Three Wise Kings–Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar, Dad tells us–are far away, on the edge of the mantelpiece, and every day until the 6th December, traditionally Epiphany, they advance a few centimetres closer to the cave. The Three Kings–somehow their names, the smells of the things they brought are still in that rustling Christmas word, so that it mingles with the magic of the Arabian Nights.

Once the tree is up, its star touching the ceiling, its massive greenery swaying gently under the gentle riches of Christmas, we are restless. We tear around the house, sticking fingers in unattended saucepans, risking furious yells by opening the fridge and PEEKING; we laugh wildly and imagine the things le pere Noel will bring.

“A magic wand, ” I say, thinking that would be enough–it would grant you every wish you needed. “A ball dress,” says my sister, in her current incarnation as Cinderella. “A real cubby house,” breathes one brother, while the others, too little to know anything except that magic will be abroad that night, stare with huge eyes at the glass baubles.

We go to bed early on Christmas Eve, for at 11 that night, we’ll be woken up again. I have difficulty in going to sleep, I think–until my eyelids close, and I don’t hear the rustles next door in the pine-warmed living room, I don’t see the fingers fumbling at our shoes, which we have placed in neat rows under the tree. Eyes still heavy and sticky with sleep, all of us, except for the baby, are woken gently at 11.  “Le pere Noel,” my mother says, smiling, with the light of night in her eyes.”He’s come!”

I jump up. The night is cool now, dark yet sparkling, and my heart is racing. It is exciting to be up at night, to be allowed up and dressed, and best of all, to be allowed to peer around the corner of the living room door and see–oh, the Christmas tree, glowing, its pine smell as strong as a spell, and underneath, jumbled in colour and size and shape–presents! Presents of all kinds! We can only peer, now, for before we can open anything, we must go to Midnight Mass. The little ones wail loudly, but Camille and I stare and gasp, savouring the postponement of the moment of unwrapping, because we know already the spell will be broken too soon, otherwise.

The church looks so exciting, too–its dimness lit with candles, its cavernous coolness filled with the mulled scent of pine. Look–I nudge my sister–they’ve made their Nativity scene, too!  Not so nice as ours, I think secretely–their large figures look coarse, unfinished, beside the delicate clay of ours. The organ rattles, someone begins a carol, and suddenly, in the middle of the First Noel, I am seized with a choking feeling, a feeling of awe and beauty and thankfulness. I want to sing and cry, all at the same time.

And then we go home, and rush to the tree in the living room. Soon, there’s wrapping papers scattered everywhere, and Dad, neat Dad, and Mum, well-organised Mum, don’t even seem to mind! There are cries of delight, screanms of joy—and then, right at the end, we see it–a note, written in tiny script, tiny, gold writing.  “It’s from HIM!” Camille says, and she picks it up and we all stand around, reading, awed, the message of Father Christmas, le pere Noel. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect night.

Buche de Noel, Australian style

(make a day or two beforehand)


400g (14 oz) sponge finger biscuits (Savoiardi style—the sort you also make Tiramisu with)

One 250 g (8 oz) packet unsalted butter

150 (6 oz) fine white sugar

2 egg yolks

100 ml (4 fluid oz) very strong coffee (made with instant coffee)

One block dark chocolate, melted

Crush all the biscuits in a bowl till they ressemble fine powder. Melt the butter, add it to the biscuit powder, along with the two eggs yolks, the sugar, and the hot coffee. Mix it all till it makes a good stiff paste that you can easily shape into a log (if it looks like the paste will be too runny, add less liquid—if too stiff, add more). Put the log, wrapped in foil, in the fridge overnight or till it’s well-set. Melt the chocolate gently with a little unsalted butter or a dab of cream, then coat the log all over with it. Put in the fridge again to set, for a few hours or overnight. You can decorate it with holly, or icing-sugar snow, or whatever you like.

Holiday art by Siril.


About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.


  1. says

    Woah, that buche de Noel sounds sinful AND easy. It beats the Pillsbury pop ‘n fresh cinnamon rolls I bake for my own family at the holiday.

    I do treasure memories of making kringla cookies with my Norwegian-bred grandmother. The smell of buttermilk dissolving in sugar brings me back every time.

    Wonderful post, Sophie!

  2. says

    We’ve developed new traditions over the years, but the one that holds firm is our annual bow to our great-grandmother’s tradition of a Slovakian Christmas Eve meal. Kolache, perogi and other things I can’t spell. It’s always a great treat and a nice way to remember our roots.

    I like to make hazelnut-toffee biscotti, too–in honor of the more dominant Italian side of me. :-)

    Thanks for the post, Sophie–and the recipe!