When my parents moved to Canada, they were the only ones who ventured more than a 100 kilometre radius away from Tilburg. With the exception of my missionary aunt and uncle who left for Africa, everyone else stayed in the city or established homes in nearby Waalwijk, or Goirle, or St. Michelsgestel. Uncle Herman was in a Belgian parish less than an hour ride from family.
Distance from the Netherlands made Christmas particularly special for my parents. There was no gathering up of the kids to visit grandparents, or welcoming uncles, aunts or cousins for a drink and a meal, or exchanging of gifts among relatives. Christmas was contained amongst ourselves, celebrating only with our immediate family, and a nod to the relations abroad.
Mom and Dad relished the opportunity to express their joy of family with the sharing of gifts; simple when we were young, more expensive when their own fortunes improved. Regardless of the financial circumstances, my parents ensured there was always something to open in the morning. Some of these memories are etched forever, others rejuvenated from photographs of those very early years.
I stumbled on this picture from 1965. From left to right, in order of age, Gary, Henry and Peter. Michael was an infant, just born in the late summer. The tree was real, bought from a man encamped in his trailer parked in the Woolco lot, spiritedly negotiated to it’s lowest agreeable price, nailed to a wooden Coca-Cola crate and propped in front of the living room window on Kostis Ave. I don’t recall this particular Christmas although Gary reminded me of the chairs and the accompanying table. It was part of the gift for the three of us; we were positioned beside our haul for the photo. The quality of the image limits the zooming capabilities in an attempt to identify some of the bounty; nevertheless, humorously, one cannot help but notice how a number of the presents came in threes: a box of Cracker Jacks; a paint set; a holster with a toy gun; a balloon pump; a hockey stick; and, a piggy bank. Clearly, our parents were encouraging us to be savers.
The display also includes individual items foreshadowing an aspect of our current reality. Gary drew on an Etch-a-Sketch to practice for his career in structural steel drafting; Peter delighted in a barn to help identify the animals he would foster on his hobby farm; and I played with a xylophone to hone up on my musical talents for guitar and bagpipe performances.
The receipt of presents related to Canada’s official sport was common throughout the years. At another Christmas, pictured below, a hockey game was the prominent feature.
Notice me in a tie (clearly a signal of my working days ahead) while the others had already abandoned theirs after mass. Attending church was important to my parents and played a significant role in the festivities. We dressed up special for Christmas mass, decked out in our best shirts and tie; bow in the early years, necktie in the latter. Midnight mass was a highlight, after which we were allowed to open one present as a teaser before heading for bed till the morning, rising first for breakfast, then opening the remainder of the gifts – a lesson in delayed gratification. As we got older, our parents would allow us to stay up longer. My mother prepared blindevinken, a special Dutch meat dish, eaten after midnight mass, followed with present opening to three o’clock in the morning. I devoured my chocolate letter before going to bed, not risking it getting stale by the morning.
Over the years, some presents stick out as memories: a toboggan leaning against the wall, as tall as the tree, greeted us at the bottom of the stairs one morning; the wooden “sjoelbak” (shuffleboard), too big for wrapping, and providing hours and then years of enjoyment. Not all gifts were store bought. My mother was an avid seamstress and knitter, making coats one year for each of us and sweaters in another. She carried on this love of making and giving with her grandchildren, creating one-of-a-kind gifts, never to be forgotten.
My parent’s joy of giving and sharing and celebrating together remains as their most important legacy. They relished the company of their immediate family: eating, singing, rejoicing in the season. My mother loved Boney M’s version of Mary’s Boy Child, the perfect combination of reverence and fun, embodying her approach to the holiday. While I struggle to recall the individual gifts, I will never forget the feeling of Christmas, the joy of giving, the importance of being together. The day has become my favourite time of the year, to express my love with a thoughtful gift that induces a smile, a hug and a kiss. I am grateful our children were able to enjoy Christmas with their Oma and Opa, Baba and Dido, and a growing, extended family. As I sit by my lighted tree each day with my morning cup of coffee, I miss the phone call from Mom or Dad about preparations, the arrival of that special card, the questions about about when we would be in London and what did we get the kids this year.
Olga and I have attempted to retain their fun and joy and celebration through different activities over the years. We hosted a gingerbread baking fest in our small apartment for our first Christmas as a couple, inviting my brothers and parents to participate. We continued this tradition with our children until they were no longer at home. In another year we suggested, and others reluctantly accepted, decorating the tree with hand-made ornaments. Dad had some difficulty with the concept but finally succumbed to the collective insistence for his contribution by stapling some tinfoil together in the shape of a star.
For several Christmases we drew names from a hat to select the lucky recipient of a hand made gift. Gary fondly remembers carving Olga’s name into a wooden cutting board while receiving placemats and oven mitts from Mom in the same year. When the ideas for making gifts waned, we switched to assembling the package to reflect the person receiving the present. The idea stemmed from Dad’s story of constructing a cardboard needle to deliver his gift to his beloved, my Mom, a nurse. You get the idea.
In this year of COVID, we refuse to allow the limitations to dampen our celebration. Olga and I have devised a treat for our children and their special loved one which we hope will bring the same smiles and memories and fun and joy with their families. As we sing about what we can give them, we pause and remember to relish the moment, rejoice in the present, be grateful for what we have and give them our heart.