Dreaming of a Bright (Not-So-White) Christmas

windmill and snowRecently I spent time thinking about some of my family’s Christmas traditions, most of which centred on food. Oh boy, are the Dutch good at food! And at Christmas they become exceptional.

My grandparents would arrive to spend our December holidays with us, laden with Christmas specialities. My favourite was probably the chocolate letters. I’d get a ‘J’, while Yvonne got a ‘Y’. I always had the sneaking suspicion that there was more chocolate in a Y than a J. But I figured a “W” would even trump a “Y” on chocolate content – it was the only time I ever wished my mother had called me Wilhelmina! There would be other delicious things too, things that tasted of almond, cinnamon and warm, foreign spices – banketstaaf,  pepernoten and stollen.

Even as we feasted on Christmas fare, my mother would say, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas.” According to her, Christmas should be a cold, snow-covered, fire-warming affair, not our hot, bright, sit-around-in-your-swimsuit-as-you-fan-yourself-cool variety. But I always felt that I had the best of both worlds – South African weather and Dutch family, food and ‘gezelligheid’. I couldn’t wish for more.

The Dutch equivalent of Father Christmas is Sinter Klaas, whose trusty companion is Zwarte Piet. Recently there has been quite the uproar in Holland over Zwarte Piet, who just isn’t very ‘politically correct’ according to modern thinking. Yet my childhood was full of Sinter Klaas & Zwarte Piet stories and imagery. The fact that they were always portrayed in a snowy European setting did nothing to detract from the magic.

I went on to date an English speaking South African. I was introduced to Christmas pies and Christmas pudding. Once the latter even had coins in it, which – to me – seemed rather unhygienic and dangerous to dental health. Turkeys and gammon took centre stage, and at times – as I sat down to his family’s heavy Christmas meal – I would think, ‘this just doesn’t feel like Christmas,’ and long for hints of cinnamon and almond.

We have our own family now and our own traditions. The Dutch shop in KyaSands can supply all the Christmas fare my heart desires, although – lacking in the love, laughter and joy that Grandparent delivered goodies were infused with – it sometimes falls a little flat. Woolworths does fantastic Christmas pies. We’ve scrapped Christmas pudding (with or without coins), instead settling on light mousse-like puddings far more conducive to the climate. On Christmas day, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the odd friend all descend onto our sunny patio, bringing (depending on their nationality) stollen, turkeys, salads and Christmas cakes, which we consume throughout the day, interspersed with swimming, music-making and gift-opening.

It’s not snowy and moody, but it’s still ‘gezellig’ and to me it feels just like Christmas should feel – a celebration of my faith, family and friendships.

This year we will be on the other side of the world at Christmas, far from our usual family and friends. Yet, as we celebrate Christmas with our missionary friends in Auckland, there will still be laughter, faith and fun (and hopefully no tooth-chipping coins)…another memorable Christmas in the making.

Please share some of your own favourite Christmas traditions with us all…


Image especially chosen to ‘feel just like Christmas’ for my Mom : Wunigard / Shutterstock.com


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  1. We will miss you this Christmas, as we have started our own ‘tradition’ over the years. It will be different! By the way,all the ‘chocoladeletters’ have the same weight!!!! And although a ‘W’ LOOKS as if it has more chocolate, that isn’t the case.

  2. I grew up with german Christmas traditions, so can totally identify with what you are saying!! Also longing for a white and cold Christmas and listening to stories of Sankt Nikolaus…but knowing that it really is about celebrating together with family and friends. I was fortunate enough to experience a German Christmas and there really is something special about that time of year with all the beautiful lights, decor and having some Glühwein with Fleischkäse on a roll at a Christmas market:) but I so missed my family that year… In the Elbsandsteingebirge in the eastern parts of Germany there is even a town that makes wooden hand made Christmas tree figurines throughout the year!!
    I know I will one day miss my granny’s yummy roast rabbit with veg and Knödel (most are disgusted by this but it truely is delicious) Like you we also scratch for german Christmas goodies at the Delicatessen shops or I try to make my own selection of cookies (yes in the heat of Africa!! ). A Christmas is not the same without Vanille Gipferl, Lebkuchen, Dominosteine, Stollen…
    I wish you and your family a blessed Christmas, safe travels and hopefully no coin biting:):) xx

    • Thanks for sharing your beautiful Christmas memories & traditions, Elrike! There’s such a richness (and yumminess!) in those German & Dutch traditions. I had one Christmas in Holland, but wasn’t much older than four, so only have vague memories of a sleigh-ride in the snow 🙂

  3. Namens Tante Elly post ik dit comment en there is the confirmation about the chocoladeletters!!!

    Ik kreeg van je moeder de link naar je blog. O, wat kun je dat toch mooi schrijven. Ook zo mooi hoe je die dingen herinnerd van spijs en speculaas!
    Ik ga vrijdag bij Irene Sint vieren en ,s middags met de kinderen pepernoten (nu zijn dat meer kruidnootjes, die zijn knapperiger) bakken.
    Heel leuk dat deze Kerst Marinda hier is, met nog meer plezier zal ik haar de stol en banketstaaf presenteren. Dan denk ik hoe waardevol die dingen zijn. Zoals je moeder schrijft, het gewicht van chocoladeletters is hetzelfde!
    Ik,heb geen website dus kan niet op je blog reageren zeker, ik heb ook geen Facebook.
    Tante Elly

  4. Dankie, liewe Joan.
    Jy het my nou behoorlik laat verlang en nostalgies terugdink aan al die Nederlandse vriende wat ek het en saam met wie ek sulke feeste belewe het.

    • Dankie Estelle – lekker dat jy van die Nederlandse kos en ‘gezelligheid’ kan geniet saam met jou vriende!

  5. That’s such a lovely post and probably the first time I have read that the Dutch are good at food! But I agree, our Dutch December bakings are great, with all the cinamon and other spices…
    Interesting to see the Sinterklaas discussion has also reached your shores. I’m also watching it from the outside (France) but for a long time I have felt uncomfortable with the way Zwarte Piet is portrayed (the minstrel-style make-up in my view was a 20th century addition, copied from North America, maybe in the wake of WWII?).
    It is high time the Dutch rethink this tradition, making it less offensive to so many people, without letting the tradition itself dissappear. But it’s really interesting to see how upset many Dutch people get when Zwarte Piet is “attacked”!
    If you understand Dutch and you have time, take a look at this documentary, it’s really good…
    Many “groetjes” from your old Dutch penpal 🙂

    • Hi Karen!! So nice to see your reply. Okay, maybe the “Dutch are good at food” statement was a bit too broad, let’s refine it to the Dutch are brilliant at baking! Thanks for your input on the Zwarte Piet debate. I mainly heard about it from my Mom who watches the Dutch TV channel. I’ll enjoy watching the documentary. Have a wonderful Christmas, Old Penpal!

    • What a powerful documentary, Karen!

  6. Your blog is about Christmas and I just want to emphasize that OUR SINTERKLAAS has nothing to do with Christmas. Of course YOU know it, but maybe your readers don’t. Sinterklaas is a children’s festival and ends on the 5th of December. Maybe he looks a bit like Father Christmas, or the other way around, but in my days (Oh boy!!!) it was not tradition to give presents at Christmastime at all. I still think that we in Holland had the best solution. Presents on the 5th of December (Sinterklaas) and a religeous celebration on the 25th. But I think that is also slowly disappearing. The Zwarte Piet discussion is very complicated and I’d rather stay out of it. It has made many changes in the past anyway and will make changes in future.

  7. Thanks for taking me down memory lane with Christmases of my childhood!

  8. You reminded me of my mother and grandmother. My grandmother collected “tickeys” and scrubbed and recycled them year after year – I still have them. They are quite thin and I think a hard bite was likely to be more damaging to the coin than the tooth.

    When my mother migrated to 5c pieces they were scrubbed and wrapped in aluminium foil. I wonder if the coins or the times were deemed to be less hygenic. Perhaps it just made the thicker coins easier to find and less hazardous to teeth.

  9. Well done. All memories like that are so precious.
    Yes we too have experienced the various South African, British and Dutch customs.
    Only experienced folk will understand the mixed emotions.

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