Wednesday 24 December 2014

Christmas and Me

I feel rather ambivalent about Christmas. There, I’ve said it.

Reading the poem before opening the present
You see, in the Netherlands, where I grew up, the exchange of presents takes place on December 5th and has its own rituals. Presents are hidden inside homemade, jokey, contraptions which usually require some effort to dismantle and ensure that each present and its unwrapping are given individual attention. The poems the Dutch traditionally write to accompany each present serve the same purpose. The poem is read out loud before the present is opened. The good poems are those that say something clever or funny about the receiver of the present. My mother was a genius when it came to those poems. Some years she would write one poem, several pages long, covering all presents one at a time as well as all recipients individually. The first year my husband joined us on December 5th, she blew me away when she produced poems in English, just for him since he hadn’t mastered Dutch yet.  I’m so glad I saved one of her poems. It still makes me smile while I cry, even almost 30 years later.

Christmas for me, therefore, never had that excitement of getting up early to see what I might find under the tree. Christmas was a special day but not as big an occasion as it was in a lot of other countries. We had the tree (with real candles rather than electric lights) and the decorations and we would have a special dinner, although there is no such thing as a typical Dutch Christmas dinner. Of course that has since changed. Commercialism being what it is, most Dutch families now find themselves facing two present-giving feasts in December. The Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ still arrives in the Netherlands mid November on his steamship from Spain and still delivers his presents on the fifth. But these days a Christmas tree isn’t finished unless there are presents underneath it, so less than twenty days after the first feast, the Dutch do it all over again. Madness.

It wasn’t until I started dating an Irishman and he brought me home to Dublin for Christmas that I discovered what I like to call the ‘English speaking Christmas tradition’. And, if I’m honest, even that very first time I found myself in two minds about it all. Having his youngest brother and sister get us out of bed at all hours of the morning because ‘Santa had been’ was both cute and frustrating. It broke my heart to see my future mother in law spend hours cooking only for the rest of us to inhale the lavish dinner in five minutes flat. I enjoyed meeting and spending time with Dermot’s siblings and partners and wanted to hide away in the bedroom after two hours.

Nothing much has changed since then. I’m still as ambivalent, if not more so. I like buying presents for friends and loved ones but I hate the crowded shops. I cringe every time I hear an adult ask a child “what is Santa going to bring you?” The child shouldn’t know that in advance. The question should be, “what do you hope Santa will bring you?” I enjoy spending time with family but find myself upset after a while because I can’t spend time doing my own thing and the number of people and the noise they produce will get on my nerves. I detest the endless amount of repeats on TV over the holidays. Even I, who
Cook your own dinner
stopped watching movies and television a few years ago, have seen most if not all of them before. But I love the traditions of our own we’ve created. Presents before breakfast, the family walk with the dog in the morning, our very untraditional DIY Christmas dinner, and playing at least one board game in the evening in front of the open fire.

Tomorrow it will be Christmas again and for most of the day the three of us will be doing our own thing. We will visit the inlaws and spend some time being sociable, but since they live next door I’ll be able to flee to my own house and peace and quiet whenever the need strikes me. The strange thing is, there are moments when I feel mildly guilty about my attitude towards Christmas; when I feel I probably should get excited about the day, the presents, the company and the food. And then I shrug it off. The media may present us with a rather one dimensional picture of what the ideal Christmas should be according to their (often commercial) agenda. Their Christmas isn’t mine. Mine is quiet and relaxed. Not a time filled with stress but rather a day of joy, taking it easy and enjoying the company of those closest to me. Feck the traditions, I’m making my day perfect in my own, untraditional way.


  1. The excitement and craziness around Christmas made me puke every year until I was around eleven or twelve.

    Hated it.

    Still don't like the season. It has a feverish feel to it that makes me recoil.

  2. Like I said in the post, in Holland the presents come on the 5th and my brother's birthday is November 28. He used to be ill that week between the two events every year. In the end my parents ended up telling him Sinterklaas wasn't real much earlier than they would have, just to take some of the excitement out of it.

    From about mid November the Irish will ask you if you've started organising for Christmas and, as you get closer to the date, whether you are organised. I want to scream every time they do.

    Having said that, we had a lovely, relaxed and quiet Christmas today. We played a few board games and ate and hang out. It was good. I hope yours was too.

  3. Just read (and found) your blog! Oh Helena your post about Sinter Klaas as opposed to Christmas and the Kerstman. I had the reverse culture shock but I admit I miss the Sinter Klaas gedicht..the first year we went Jeroen got a bunch of sticks from the Zwarte Piet as I was slightly expecting our daughter before the wedding LOL. I loved the whole family sitting down exchanging presents, jokes and the poems. It would take hours, as Jeroen is one of eight children, but it was such a good time. Sadly, since the passing of my M.I.L. the family doesn't all gather together now and we tend to stay in England. Thank you for your post <3