In the current climate, one half expects to one day see Santa Claus come out of a re-education camp gaunt, clean shaven, fully repentant and vowing never to pick up his sooty clay cutty. But thankfully Christmas still offers free range and a delightful annual tradition to that endangered species known as the pipe smoker.
Pipe smoking and Christmas have long been interwined. Santa smokes a clay pipe, while Frosty sports a corncob. And each year television sets across the nation flicker with the image of Bing Crosby, one of the patron saints of pipe smoking, tapping the bells on a Christmas tree with his pipe stem while crooning “White Christmas.”
Pipe smokers tend to be thoughtful types sensitive to occasion, and smoking on Christmas is more pleasant than any other day of the year. Often you get the added pleasure of smoking a new pipe (though actually pipes require breaking in, so it’s kind of like getting new shoes). Pipes have made convenient Christmas gifts for dads for decades, as shown in this December, 1952 New Yorker cover:
Many manufacturers offer special-edition Christmas pipes, such as Petersen of Dublin:
In England, Dunhill offers its Christmas pipes in book-style gift boxes that are priced in the thousands. Each pipe has a theme taken from Christmas lore, and features elegant silverwork and a silver tamper expressing each year’s character. This one is Scrooge:
Along with pipes as gifts are tins of tobacco. Many a father of yore received a large tin of Edgeworth, which has been brought back this Christmas under the name Lane Limited Ready Rub.
And for many years now McClelland has produced an annual blend called Christmas Cheer. In my cellar I have Christmas Cheer blends going back to 1992. To borrow the parlance of the wine trade, I could do a vertical tasting of Christmas Cheer at the drop of Frosty’s top hat.
Although pipe smokers may seem scarce, there is a veritable renaissance of tobacco blending going on, and today there is a whole slew of so-called Christmas blends. I say “bah humbug,” as most of them fall in the aromatic category, which means they’ve been sweetened. I will not be smoking any Sugar Plum fairies, thank you very much.
This year saw the brief reappearance of the celebrated Balkan Sobraine mixture, but what got me even more giddy this Christmas are my new tins by John Cotton. With apologies to Dickens, who are the founders of this year’s tobacco feast? Three principals of The Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania, a master tobacco blender, and the power of crowdsourcing.
The Standard Tobacco Company is a cheeky homage to John D. Rockefeller’s company. Its spokesman is veteran photographer Dan Z. Johnson, a pre-boom cigar aficionado who three years ago took up the pipe with its comforting aroma of domestic life he knew as a child. He threw himself into his new hobby and became an active participant in the Pipes magazine forum, where he met Simon Thurlow, who would become the second principal in The Standard Tobacco Company.
It was on Thurlow’s high-rise patio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that he secured Johnson’s commitment to help Thurlow in his quixotic quest to bring back lost tobacco blends. It was a mania, in fact, that lead eventually to the cloak-and-dagger extreme of sending an old sample of the pugnacious plug War Horse to Israel to a Mossad-linked laboratory for a full forensic analysis.
Thurlow then brought aboard the third principal of the company, trademark attorney Roger L. Fidler. But owning names and even knowing everything scientifically about a tobacco blend is worthless without the alchemy of a master tobacco blender. Russ Ouellette, a blender with 30 years of experience and father of the popular Home & Hearth series of tobacco blends, stepped up to the challenge. Ouellette had firsthand experience smoking these blends in the ’70s, but what was invaluable was the number of inveterate smokers and tobacco hoarders who broke into their cellars to produce samples of the blends.
Reintroducing a classic blend is not without risks. One is bound to encounter dueling curmudgeons one insisting that it nothing like what he remembers, while another will insists it is a dead on match. A peacemaking, Solomon-like figure will suggest it can stand on its own. At the end of the day, they will all be right because pipe smoking is an inherently a personal waltz.
My Christmas pipe is solitary, it straddles Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — I suppose you could call it my midnight mass. It is then I can reflect and embrace the manic nature of the holiday, a time that carries the sense of urgent demands, yet is so frequently invaded by memory. A disassociated time when our past seems never more alive, and yet the pang of loss never more acute. If there was ever a time for solace of a pipe, it is in the yuletide. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP