Whenever I think back at the Christmases of my youth, I always associate them with the sound of crunching snow under our feet when returning from night mass. So my memory isn’t to be fully, truly trusted, as winters in The Netherlands don’t always come with snow, but it must have somehow made a strong impression.
We were Catholics, so our Christmas started with night mass. Our church had two services: one at 3:00am and one at 6:00am. My father was one of the deacons and was assigned to one of the services. For these special celebrations, he would wear his black suit with bow tie. Deacons had special seats in church and we would go to mass with my mother until we were old enough to be trusted to behave without supervision. Then I found it difficult to decide which service to go to. If you went to the early service, you were supposed to help heat up the stove, set up the breakfast table and make sure all the candles were burning when the other family members arrived home; but you would have the Men’s and Boys’ Choirs during the service. If you went to the later service, you would arrive at a warm, welcoming house and would not have to wait to start enjoying the extensive breakfast; but there would only be a small choir at the service and I loved the singing of the other choirs.
So each year, I would waver between the two choices: beautiful music, but arriving at a cold, dark house; or a less beautiful service and arriving at a candle-lit, warm house.
Before breakfast, my youngest sister had the privilege of putting Baby Jesus in His crib at the Nativity Scene that had been set up a few days before; and after breakfast, we stayed at the table, singing carols until it had become daylight outside and all the candles had burnt down.
Our small, artificial Christmas tree also had regular candles and each year another branch would get seared, but we were always in time to prevent a disaster and blow it out. We never had to use the buckets of water that stood ready. In later years, when the tree was almost burnt bare, we would buy small, real Christmas trees and put in electric lights.
Our Nativity Scene had a history. I must have been five or six years old when I saw one of our neighbours crossing the street to our house with a white bucket filled with statuettes. The elderly couple was going to move to a home and they didn’t have any children of their own. We would sometimes do their shopping for them and they often watched us when we played outside. They had a beautiful Nativity Set, which had been in their family for a while. She wanted to give it to us, as they couldn’t take it with them and hoped it would stay in our family for a long time. One of my sisters inherited it after my parents died and probably one of her children will get it later, so her wish has come true.
When breakfast was finally over, we children would play games while our parents settled down in easy chairs and took a nap. I also remember that one time my two sisters and my brother used that time to practise acting out the Birth of Christ, while I sang the verses of a song that told the history. My youngest sister had to be Baby Jesus, which took some convincing, but as a rather bossy eldest child, I managed to get it done and then we had great fun and our parents enjoyed it.
In the afternoon, we would go for a walk and when my grandparents were still alive, we would visit them for a while to wish them a Merry Christmas. By the time we would get back home, it was dark and we could light the candles again and we would sing more carols while my mother was busy in the kitchen finishing up dinner.
I grew up in the years after World War II, when many things were still scarce, and we also didn’t have a lot of money. To have something special for Christmas, my parents had got into the habit of buying a bunny at Easter and fattening it up for Christmas. When I tell this to people now, they often think it was awfully cruel to “eat your own pet rabbit” for Christmas dinner. For us, it was something quite normal. Many of our friends and family did the same. We knew it would be gone by Christmas and we would have delicious rabbit soup and fight for the nicest parts of the fried animal during dinner. My mother was very good at preparing it and the kitchen smelled heavenly on Christmas Eve when she started the preparations.
Except for going to mass, we kept the tradition for Christmas more or less the same when our children were still young. We would play Christmas Carols on the record player during our candle-lit breakfasts and dinners and play games during the day.
In my youth, there were no presents under the Christmas tree. We would celebrate Sinterklaas with presents on December 5. We kept that tradition when we got married, but since we moved to the Caribbean, we have had a Christmas tree with presents under it.
When we lived on Saba some 20 years ago, I introduced the candle-lit Christmas breakfast in my home-room class. This small third form of Saba Comprehensive School had girls only and they enjoyed bringing the food and setting up the classroom on the last day before Christmas break. We had a great time!
Last year, we celebrated Christmas in The Netherlands with our children and grandchildren for the first time in 20 years. When we sat in the crowded room at our daughter’s house (we now are a family of 12) and I saw our son and daughter busy in the kitchen fixing dinner, my husband chatting with the in-laws and the grandkids playing games (okay, yes, on their phones) I felt very happy to see that the spirit of unity and family warmth had been taken up by them and hopefully will be taken up by their children.
We wish you all a very Merry Christmas with your loved ones.