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Oranges and lemons

By TM O’Shaughnessy

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s…,” as the old nursery song goes. Last year this very week in London on holiday, I wandered unknowingly into the same St. Clement’s Danes church of the nursery rhyme, and was rewarded by an outburst of gorgeous sound. A full choir was running through a dress rehearsal for Handel’s Messiah, and I sat down in a state of pure Christmas happiness, cancelling the rest of the day’s plans.

With COVID, of course, this year is very different and there can only be vicarious travel. But the silver lining in this cloud may just be all the unaccustomed free time we have by living in lockdown. Whereas in any other month of December I would be darting around with work, choir-singing, preparing for Christmas, and spending lots of time on the highway ferrying myself between all the points on my compass, this year there is time upon time. I’m missing seeing dear friends and colleagues for sure, but also finding pleasure in the relaxed pace. And getting to do some of the Christmassy things I always wanted to do, but never had time for.

Like today, for example. In the grocery store I rolled by a stack of wooden crates full of those Maroc clementines that always arrive this time of year. With a free afternoon ahead, I knew just what I wanted to do: to take the clementines and make old fashioned pomanders studded with lots of cloves – a classic decoration from times gone by. The gardener in me also hoped there might be some last-hurrah sprigs left in my herb pots out on the balcony for festive finishing touches.

Back home I chose the five best looking clementines, found half a bottle of cloves in the pantry, and resurrected a knitting needle with a tiny point – the kind my mother used for knitting socks for my father. Since I also had some ribbon remnants, I wrapped those around the clementines first, securing the ends with a few straight pins. Then I opened the bottle of cloves, had a good deep sniff, and started. It was so simple: pierce the clementine, insert a clove, and then do it again.

My pomander-making afternoon was Zen, Christmassy and very satisfying.

The word pomander comes from the French pomme d’ambre, or ‘apple of amber,’ and for centuries was a decorative ball made to hold perfumes (think ambergris in silver filigreed ornaments). It was worn or carried to dispel all sorts of antique odors, and also relied upon as nothing less than “protection against infection in times of pestilence.” So really, what could be more fitting for a COVID Christmas?

With cloves taking care of malodorous scents, and clementines warding off pestilence (added bonus: they prevent scurvy) – not to mention foraged decorative lavender stalks (used since the Romans to protect against plague), a pomander might just be essential this year. The gardener even has the added satisfaction of having rummaged in the garden for whatever might be left, bringing it inside to adorn their pomanders, the results being a thing of beauty for both eyes and nose.

I really loved my pomander-making afternoon.

They provide such an old-world ambiance, and smell divine with freshly-clipped lavender and sage creating a true scent of Christmas past. I just wish I had some cinnamon sticks to add to my display of them.

But there’s always tomorrow and more than enough time, these days, to get some.