There is a book written by Richard Carleton Hacker, an American pipe-writer of some pedigree, entitled “The Christmas Pipe: A Collector’s Celebration of Pipe Smoking at Yuletide”.
The online price for this book ranges from an eye watering £494.09 (new) down to a hardly budget £113.68 (used, 4 copies available at time of writing, if interested). Now there are very few professional pipe-writers, and Mr Carleton Hacker is one of them, and very informative he can be. But, I ask, what is it we need to know, at this price, specifically about Christmas pipe-smoking as opposed to smoking the rest of the year?
Of course, the Yuletide imagery is well-seeded. Pickwickian gentlemen in wing-backed chairs, sipping at the Wassailing Bowl and clay Churchwarden alike. The fug of Victorian taverns is still fresh in some of our minds, right up until the recent ban (although recent visits to Berlin and Malaga suggest that the rest of Europe applies the ban only as and where it sees fit). Beyond that the Christmassy, nuclear family ideal of father at fireside with warm slippers and pipe, and obedient wife and well-controlled children in waiting, is a cliché that is fading daily. Which of us lives, or smokes, like that any more?
When our hobby, pastime or habit (depending on your standpoint) was indulged in by many, pipe production was of such volume that special “Christmas Pipes” were issued annually. This was mostly, we suspect, to solve gift problems beyond the pair of socks or bottle of Scotch presents for the man who had everything – or nothing. Also, less generously, it was the pipe-maker’s Christmas bonus. But before we get all ‘Scroogey’, one of the UK’s major pipesmiths, who shall remain nameless, still offers the occasional Christmas pipe which will be hungrily lapped up by collectors Worldwide. This collector mentality, while thoroughly encouraged, is a different thing altogether. Similarly, some of our smaller tobacco producers still offer limited edition ‘Christmas Blends’ which are similarly lapped up and often, like wines, ‘laid down’ in the name of connoisseurship. Is this then what Christmas puffing is all about?
For me, the links between pipe smoking and Christmas are more basic, even primeval. The smell of Christmas for me was once cigar and pipe smoke mingled with alcohol fumes and the roasting dinner. The pipe itself, a hand-turned wooden receptacle, smooth and warm in hand and toasty on the nose is as redolent of Christmas comforts as is the spiky, wintergreen sappiness of the tree itself – a Yule Log for the mouth.
Enough Freudian connections have been made over the years for a man’s liking for briar in mouth, but I will not delve into the complex male psyche here. Enough to say that Christmas offers those rare moments where one can sit, guilt free in a chair, glass at elbow and stare at the fire whilst puffing tobacco. And no-one will complain. On the contrary they will sniff the air, saying it “smells like Christmas,” or that the room note reminds them of distant Christmases past, of long-lost grandfathers, and so on, and on…
Let’s also consider some of the names and ingredients: Plum Cake, Rum and Maple, Whisky, Brandy, Spice, Cloves and Cinnamon, Raisin, Fig, Date. All these appear in wintry tobacco blends and brands over the past 100 years, and still do so. The same names and ingredients apply to Christmas puddings and cakes of course, and the similarities do not stop there. How many times have you opened a tin or packet of Cavendish, flake or aromatic blend and had a non-smoker hungrily, approvingly even, breathe in what they describe as ‘Christmas cake’ aromas? What is a block of flake tobacco, cured, pressed, cased with rum and other flavourings over several months, if it is not a smokeable Christmas Cake or Pudding?! Christmas in a pipe.
The advice of this writer is to stock up for the festive season not on specials, just on something different in the same way that you’d stock up on that Single Malt or Vintage Port. Award yourself, or add to your Christmas list, something new. What about, for instance, a Carey Meerschaum – a lovely bent Somali or a straight Turkish? Even perhaps invest in a Comoy’s Best Quality Calabash and follow Sherlock on a ‘two pipe problem’ whilst reading “The Hound…”. And if you don’t have a Meerschaum then, as a pipe smoker, you really should. They are a cool smoke, carved from a rare mineral that is laid down in coastal areas, a fossil of shells and – as the word translates from the German – “Sea Foam”. This light, porous material makes the perfect smoking vessel and precedes briar historically as the bowl of choice. Tobacco can taste its very best in a Meerschaum pipe.
That done, look at the blends you may not have tried: Rum Flake or Old Scotch, Carey’s finest blends… or Peach Brandy, Wild Cherry, even a little Latakia spice with Balkan Special? And then, as an after dinner treat, a rare Cuban cigar from Carey’s will complete your Christmas Day’s smoking. My choice is always a Cohiba Siglo II, Fidel’s favourite.
While I would be happy to read “The Christmas Pipe: A Collector’s Celebration of Pipe Smoking at Yuletide” I feel that my money would be better spent on a new pipe and tobacco. In other words doing it, rather than reading about it in a book! Unless, of course, a big bearded figure attempts to put one in my stocking on Christmas Eve…? But enough about my wife… (Christmas joke)!
And on the day sit back, pack your new Meerschaum, light and listen to the approval as curls of fragrant smoke, encapsulating the Spirit of Christmas, transport your family and circle of friends in your shared memories and ‘pipe dreams’.
So, put that in your pipe and smoke it!
‘Cocky’ Dunhill, Christmas 2013.