Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Christmas Memory with Author Rebecca Burke

Please welcome Rebecca Burke today, with a special memory from Christmastime in Amsterdam, made even better by simple traditions and a happy mixture of cultures. Read on!

I was looking forward to Christmas in Amsterdam for a different set of reasons from my children, Bridgit (then 5) and Conor (then 3).  For me, this particular holiday meant I could finally have the slimmed-down shopping, visitor, and rituals-list of my dreams. And after learning that Santa could easily find them, even after their move from Iowa, the kids were ecstatic. In Amsterdam, they’d get to celebrate Christmas twice! In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives on December 5. And as time goes on—nudged no doubt by the merchants—the Dutch are celebrating the 25th with gift-giving as well.  Not without a lot of grumbling, I’m sure.

All I knew was that I was getting out of a *)##*Y@#!! of work. Because we wouldn’t have any visitors and our kids were not old enough to know better, there would be NO EXPECTATIONS for me, the usual Christmas ringmaster.  I would not be spending hundreds of hours on my feet cleaning, baking cookies, breads, and meals and cleaning up after same. I wouldn’t have to spend days dragging decorations out of my basement and attic and piecing them together, getting coated with dust and a toxic brew of chemicals. No malls and minimal wrapping.

By way of holiday color, our dark apartment in Amsterdam, on a block skirted by two wide canals, had nothing but a poinsettia and a blooming red hibiscus. Pretty—and plenty. I gloried in the simplicity.
I am not a Grinch, though this may make me sound like one. Quite the opposite: for my favorite holiday, I usually go overboard, baking, buying, and imbibing way too much. Scaling back was in order, and would count as a pleasure and a wonderful memory in contrast to my usual frenzy.

And it was. The Dutch hang fiercely onto their traditions and have a huge sense of occasion. Yet, they don’t believe in going overboard with material consumption or display, which probably sounds contradictory (if not impossible) to most Americans.

One example may help to show what I mean.

The local Montessori school put on a holiday dinner for the students and their families every year. The modern brick building was around the corner from our apartment and right on a wide canal. We walked by the canal’s glittering waters in the cold night, wondering what the evening would be like. We didn’t speak Dutch, so socially we sometimes felt like a nuisance, forcing the polite Dutch to speak English in our company. We needn’t have worried. The building was filled with children, teachers, and parents, carrying trays of foods and drinks and trying to squeeze into the large room with the music spilling out of it. There would not be many opportunities for sustained conversation.

The room had lots of large windows that looked out onto the sparkling black canal waters. A group of parents had put together an impromptu Christmas band to provide the entertainment, and while we ate and mingled, they played classical and holiday songs. Something for everyone. The feast showed the influences of all the cultures at the school: Dutch, Italian, Moroccan, Turkish, Surinamese and more. For sweets, there were the ubiquitous bowls of pepernoten (small, hard ginger cookies) and delicious fruit-studded Stolen (Christmas yeast bread) in addition to baklava and sugar cookies.  Best of all, we parents were allowed to have a glass (or two) of gluhwein, the spicy mulled wine that northern Europeans like to drink at their holiday parties. The overhead lights were low so that flickering candles could create the appropriate atmosphere. Everyone’s face had a soft, attractive glow.

Now try to imagine attending a school event in the States where a parent (or TEACHER!) could have a (delicious) glass of wine while candles were allowed to burn with children running around. And where all the grown-ups knew all the lyrics to the John Lennon song, “So This is Christmas”? Mellowed by holiday exhaustion and the mulled wine, we sang many songs, filled to the brim with warm feeling for our children’s teachers and friends and their parents. It all felt very magical--the canal shimmering outside in the dark night, inside the flickering lights, and the crush of happy, contented parents and their children, singing the perfect words of the perfect Christmas song.

In all our time in Amsterdam, nothing came close to the beauty of this evening. I had finally paid attention to the full meaning of John Lennon’s lyrics.  
“A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear . . .”

More lyrics:
. . .”

Rebecca Burke has published three YA/crossover novels in the last year, and is now working on a travel memoir about her family's year in Amsterdam. She taught creative writing at Iowa State University, worked in educational publishing over a decade, and now is freelance writing and editing while working on her own projects. Her family consists of a husband, two teenagers and a neurotic (is there any other kind?) Yorkie.

To see Rebecca's work, check out: 
2.  The Ahimsa Club
3. What If the Hokey Pokey Really Is What It’s All About?

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