Baltimore City

Holiday season in old Baltimore was a journey of scents and sensibilities

I am a fan of the gradual and deliberate Christmas, one that starts slow and lasts into the middle of January. In this mindset, the day and weekend after Thanksgiving is part of the progression of days in holiday preparation.

When I was growing up, my family shopped on foot. They carried their Christmas loot home and stashed it in secret corners of the cellar.


Of course, I knew all their hiding places. I found many reasons to investigate a cold cavity under the front porch at this time of the year.

The first sign of Christmas magic in my youth was the odd scent from the kitchen. Early in the morning my grandmother was browning flour for her fruitcakes. Those cakes, with all the dicing and mincing of candied fruits and nuts, plus the long baking time, were her most complicated baking ordeal of the year.


She knocked the fruitcake chores off early in the season — so the brandy could work some magic. I think she also started early because the batter was so thick it sometimes bested the motor in her electric mixer. More than once she sent my father on an errand to a 25th Street electric shop. This "motor hospital" could always make an overnight fix.

I also associate the holidays with the scent of pine wood being sawed. My father and his brother-in-law would be busy in our cellar making a homemade Baltimore Christmas garden — a train garden — in the days after Thanksgiving.

Each year they added some new feature on the train platform. One time my father replicated the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The road was poster board; the tunnels were wood scraps from the Arundel Lumber Co. on York Road. Only the actual electric trains came from a store. Some years they dug live moss for landscaping verisimilitude.

When the garden was finally unveiled Christmas morning, it was worth the month I spent spying on its creation. (It was supposed to be a secret.)

The old Memorial Stadium, a beloved Baltimore landmark, saw its parking lot toward Ednor Road turned into an outdoor greens sale. Run by volunteers for an eyesight charity, it was a calm and reassuring place to buy a tree. There was a selection of aromatic balsams piled along the stadium wall. The sellers were enthusiastic amateurs who volunteered their time.

I'd select a tree on a December afternoon and glance at the skyline downtown, grateful that part of Waverly offered a tranquil place to complete a Christmas ritual unburdened by commercialism. The wiring task ahead was daunting, but I would worry about that later. It was not unusual to observe patrons carrying their trees home on buses and streetcars.

Downtown Baltimore's decorated department store windows along Howard Street beckoned crowds after Thanksgiving. I remember them well — but something that stands out vividly in the Decembers of my youth actually ran under that street.

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The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad hosted a one-night event: We arrived at a long train of passenger cars at the platform at Camden Station. Scores of enthusiastic children and their parents boarded the coaches and found seats for a 45-minute trip that began in the mysterious Howard Street Tunnel.


We passed Mount Royal Station and emerged in Remington, then passed through Waverly and Clifton Park. Soon we were crossing the Susquehanna River before reaching our destination in Cecil County.

Everyone climbed off the train. There was no station platform here, but the railroad provided step stools.

We all gathered in a field.

As a B&O employee glee club broke into "Silent Night," the lights flashed on a towering holly tree.

We all gasped — and wished Christmas could come every month.