Warm chestnuts and the birth of a Christmas tradition
By Christine Moughamian • Iluustration By Romey Petite
It was my boyfriend’s first time.
I’d done it many times, but never upright in the fog by a Christmas tree all lit up, soaring to a starry sky. The night was magical. Naturally, I wanted to be his first.
“Here, try this one,” I whispered. “It’s hot.”
Jim opened his mouth. I did it the French way, with a seductive smile, blew a kiss on it and put it on his tongue.
“It’s not what I expected,” he said.
I felt nervous.
Before we met, the closest my American boyfriend had come to a hot chestnut was with the Nat King Cole song. I grew up in France to the shouts of street vendors, “Hot chestnuts! Chauds, les marrons!” I’d planned our date carefully. As in a fairy tale, we’d stroll down paths glistening in holiday magic, savoring oven-roasted chestnuts. I’d already experienced Enchanted Airlie in 2005. But in December 2006 for Jim, it was a night of firsts: first time for the Holiday Light Extravaganza and first time ever eating roasted chestnuts.
“So what did you expect?” I asked, a bit concerned.
“I thought it’d be hard and nutty.”
What could be worse than that?
“But it’s warm and melty,” he said. “I like it.”
Good, I thought, we’re back in our fairy tale.
I opened the newspaper cornet I’d rolled our treats in, picked and peeled a fleshy chestnut, and offered it to him.
“Mmhh,” he moaned.
Our love story had begun in the summertime, once upon a Sunday in church, when a tall, handsome man crossed the stage, sat at the keyboard and sang. His voice stirred something deep in my soul. A couple of months later he accompanied me in the song “Autumn Leaves” for our church variety show. He used a melancholy accordion sound whose name set the tone for our encounter: Paris Romance.
On performance night, Jim backed me up at the keyboard, but I stood front and center at the microphone — terrified. I thought I’d die, hardly comforted to know I’d die in style in my classic “LBD,” a fluid long black dress from Paris, my hair cascading in auburn waves down my bare back.
The audience was silent.
Nervous, I took a side step, revealing my leg through the slit in my dress.
“Ahh,” they all sighed.
That only vaguely concealed my stage fright. Somewhere in the middle of the song I had to switch to English, then back to French. What if…?
“Just keep repeating the same French words,” Jim had said at rehearsal. “People will never know.”
He was right. I did. They didn’t. That night changed my life forever. I channeled Edith Piaf, the audience cried, and Jim fell in love with me.
“You looked sexy,” he said later on. “Your leg showing through that long slit . . .”
At Enchanted Airlie, as I reminisced about Jim’s compliment, I looked into the newspaper cornet for another chestnut, auburn like my hair, and tender like my heart.
“It’ll melt in your mouth,” I said.
The fog enveloped us. We hummed a Christmas carol drifting in the distance. When we talked, we whispered. After a bend we found ourselves standing in the middle of the path under a Christmas tree made of blue light-strings. Surely, we had just stepped into a magical wonderland where sugarplum fairies danced in our eyes, their fluttering wings sparkling blue.
Blue like our whirlwind romance that would take us from sunset walks on the beach to a rendezvous in Paris the next spring, then an invitation to live in Jim’s luxurious house, and a long weekend on Bald Head Island in the summer where he embodied Richard Gere at Island Passage Clothing and I, Pretty Woman, lavished on for my birthday.
In the fall, like in a fairy tale, he took me to a masked ball. I wore a blue evening gown he bought for me because, he said, “When I saw it in the window, I knew you’d look good in it.” He even gave me the perfect shoes to dance in, silver with rhinestones.
I felt like Cinderella.
But every girl knows that in order to find her Prince Charming she’ll have to wrestle with a beast. Jim was a widower who had been married most of his adult life. I was a fierce woman who’d left France at 27 years old, had never married and had lived alone for years in my own house. I liked space, he liked stuff.
Once, he gave me rubies. And I fell for it.
Like Snow White, I took a bite of that red apple.
I fell asleep.
Upon awakening I discovered that not all roasted chestnuts tasted warm and melty. Some chestnuts were hard like his furniture I kept bumping into, while mine sat in storage, abandoned. He gave me gold and silver but seemed unaware that to me, true treasures were open feelings and shared dreams. Some chestnuts crumbled into dust, moments of doubt when I’d ask, “Show me the way, should I go or should I stay?”
It would take another few months for Jim to let me bring over some of my own furniture. Eventually, we turned an attic corner into a writing study. And the magic of our first night at Enchanted Airlie, renewed with every Yuletide, lived on ever after.
Every year since, when night falls on Airlie, we stroll through the gardens aglow with festive lights twinkling to Christmas cheer. We marvel at the Enchanted Forest and Poinsettia Paradise, then enter Santa’s North Pole, a large, white tent cozy with a hearth, Christmas trees and treats. We wait in line with throngs of children to have our photo taken with a ruddy Santa, cradling cups of hot cocoa in our hands in the spirit of the season of hope and togetherness.
Strengthened year after year, our Christmas tradition was born on that foggy December evening, when we walked under majestic oaks decked in rainbow colors. That night, we promised to return every year and celebrate our enchanted romance with thousands of twinkling Christmas lights.
I gave Jim the last roasted chestnut, both crisp and tender.
“It’s delicious,” he said.
And still is.
Award-winning memoirist Christine Moughamian is a regional representative for the North Carolina Writer’s Network. She lives in Wilmington.