Up until the age of 11 December was by far my favourite month of the year. For a start the days were much shorter; it was exciting playing outside in the dark all sorts of games could be played in that magic time between 4pm and the time you were called in for dinner.
Inside there was something wonderful warm and reassuring about the blazing fire and the lovely winter foods.
But it did not end there. First of all we had the lead up to Sinterklaas – his feast day is on the 6th of December but once you were big enough to realise that he was not real the real fun was to be had on the evening of then 5th of December – pakjes avond. Weeks before every one in the family had drawn the name of a family member out of a hat – the task was to get a present for that family member. But that was only part of it. The real challenge was to make a ‘surprise’ or pakje.
Typically you would wrap a number of things – perhaps a lump of coal, or a carrot plus your real present. Not only that the aim was to be as creative as possible in the way you wrapped your present. The final touch was to add a little poem about the recipient. Then on the actual evening all the presents were in a big bag next to a table laden with all sorts of special Sinterklaas food – ginger bread, chocolate, speculaas, marzipan – all sorts of treats that we really only saw at Sinterklaas.
One by one the presents were opened – there was no indecent haste – it was not just about the present it was about what was written and how the present had been put together. Also it was common for each one of us to get what now would be called fillers. For example chocolatiers would have made all the letters of the alphabet so I would usually get a big letter J of course when that was unwrapped we shared the letter and would not open the next present until the letter had been consumed – since we all got a letter we had our fill of chocolate by evenings end.
The sixth of December also brought presents but it was a normal school/work day but there was something special about telling your friends about what had happened the previous evening.
With Sinterklaas done and dusted it was time to put up the tree and the nativity scene. Our tree had real candles and every evening just before bed all the candles would be lit, we sang some carols and then as the youngest it was my job to blow out the candles.
On Christmas Eve we all walked to Church to attend mid night mass. I would leave first as I was an alterboy and remember walking through the forest. It was full moon and the snow on the trees looked magic. Midnight Mass should really be called midnight masses for there were three masses one after the other. The nativity scene would be on display and the story of Christmas would be told.
After Midnight Mass we had a special Christmas breakfast – again this seems to be a uniquely Dutch custom, no special Christmas dinner instead of a special breakfast with all sorts of treats on the table, treats that we would never normally have for breakfast. Then back to bed.
New Year’s eve was the final big event. This was the time for oliebollen (Dutch Doughnuts) Mum would make the dough and leave it to rise in a warm place. Meanwhile the Christmas tree was stripped and put out ready for the neighbourhood bonfire. Dad would have bought some fireworks and come midnight we would be eating our fill of oliebollen, and of course watch the fire works and enjoy the bonfire.
When I look back on that last Christmas in Holland I suspect that I am looking at it through rose coloured glasses. However, the following December in Australia was hot, there was no Sinterklaas, no special breakfast on Christmas day and certainly there was no magic midnight mass. We had a tree and the nativity scene but it was simply not the same.
We had to invent Christmas for our children so that they would have a special memory and now my grandson he too will be remembering a Christmas as his parents begin to create their own tradition.
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