Tuesday, January 15, 2013

All My Bells Are Ringing

All My Bells Are Ringing (Lenka)

Leiden canals, shops, and Christmas tree

  December in The Netherlands.  Since we moved here in January, December was to be our final month to explore without having any previous experience to fall back upon.  As I shrugged into my comforter-like coat, broke in the knee-high boots, and accessorized the winter ensemble with a new hat and gloves, I was enlivened with the holiday spirit and smiled at my knowledge and preparation.  (A year ago, this Texas girl barely knew the real purpose of a scarf much less owned one.)  Each walk into town to visit the market or library was costumed anew with lights and greenery, which made the daily tasks feel wildly romantic and beautiful.  I could almost imagine characters in Charles Dickens novels entering in and out of the houses adjacent to the streets of Leiden.  THIS is it.  Seeing as I had been watching Christmas movies for nearly half the year in celebration of the Texas-like-40-degree-crap-weather I experienced for well, half the year - I was finally ready to experience Christmas in Europe with everyone else onboard.  Suddenly – quotes of books and lyrics of songs became enchantingly clear: Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap (Yes! I can picture how cold Europeans must have felt without central heat!) . . . The Carol of The Bells (The Town Hall bells provided a festive soundtrack as Leiden shoppers perused the stalls at market every Saturday during December).  Even small scenes in Love Actually, quick flashes of people carrying a Christmas tree through the streets, were not lost on me. . . I celebrated our first snowfall with glee and purpose.  We’d done up Sinterklaas with style, now let’s see what Christmas was all about. 
De Valk Windmill & Leiden Christmas Lights
  I explored options.  We had read about a Kerstlooper (Christmas walk) in the Leidse Hout (Leiden Woods) nearby.  Leidse Hout was created in 1931 as a governmental project to provide work during The Great Depression.  It is a large park with enormously tall thin trees, gravel paths, a dog park, playground, and an indoor/outdoor tea house where parents sip coffee and devour pannekoeken while the kids run around taking turns at saying hello to the deer and peacocks behind a chained-link fence.  Best of all, the park is less than a 10-minute walk from our house, so we visit quite regularly.  The Christmas walk advertised itself as a walk through the woods with different nativity scenes depicted live.   Seeing as the woods were so close, and in a festive Christmas spirit, V and I loaded up the double-stroller, leashed Tyler (the German Shepherd mix) and headed out the door.   We headed towards the Tea House and started walking through the familiar part of the park.  It was quite dark, but tea lights in glass jars lined every pathway.  “We forgot!” the ad had told us to bring our own lantern (flashlight, perhaps?  Sometimes google-translate gets things confused).  We walked up to the pavilion I had passed many times on daily excursions, as a large group of people, guided by a man dressed as a monk arrived as well.  Seconds later, we discovered that we were at the height of a reenactment of the resurrection of Jesus.  Two 12-year old guards staged a sword fight with a tall white-toga-wearing male and after they dramatically fell to the ground, “God” pretended to roll the stone away from the projected screen image.  I glanced nervously at my husband.  Resurrection?  Are we in the wrong holiday?  We had clearly entered the ‘walk’ at the wrong time.  Where was the beginning?  And would it be hugely bad form to leave the resurrection in the middle of the performance?  We decided to stay and sang a Dutch song using the subtitles on the screen and humbly followed the monk and the rest of his group as he led them to the exit.  Not ready for Pea soup or gluhwein at this point, the confused Americans looked confused enough for a kind Dutch man to ask us if we needed help.  “Yes, I’m sorry, but where is the beginning?” we asked.  There were no signs posted anywhere.  He pointed us to the end of a very large parking lot I never even knew existed.  We smiled and I thanked him.  All the time my daughter, though our fumbling kept asking us, “Where is the Baby Jesus?” and all I could say was, “Honey, I’m not sure, we’re trying to find him.”  We followed the masses and found the Inn.  It was a lovely and well-done scene complete with intricate costumes, a couple of real donkeys (of which Tyler tried to make a friend), and a flute trio.  The monk gathered the new comers around him.  He was getting ready for the next guided tour.  OH.  Okay, so this is how this works.  He said a few things and we started off, the Americans with their double stroller and dog, bringing up the rear.  We walked.  We walked.  We walked.  We walked to parts of the park I never even knew existed.  We passed soccer fields and windmills.  My poor 10-year old dog that barely gets out of the house was panting and looking up at me suspiciously while Baby Girl continued to chant, “Where’s the Baby Jesus, Mama?”  After a solid ten minutes, the monk turned off the sidewalk and into the woods.  He started to explain everything while I just tried to calm and quiet my children.  The large tour group followed him through the dark woods to an open clearing and waited anxiously.  An industrial spotlight and generator flip on and we find ourselves standing on a grassy hill which slopes down to a little creek.  On the other side of the creek are eight people dressed as angels.  They say a few words then start singing Hark The Herald Angels Sing (in Dutch).  Baby Girl looks at me, “Mama, Charlie Brown Mismas!” she says.  She recognizes the song from one of her favorite movies.  We’ve seen Charlie Brown Christmas about 150 times this year.  We turned it on any time it was cold – so that pretty much covers last January through July and then again starting in November.  As the choir sang, I took in the beauty of the moment – the lovely weather, the choir, the darkness and light, the illuminated trees towering above us, my children, my husband, and my dog.  I smiled.  The angels concluded and the monk was ushering us on to the next spot.  During my sereneness-check, the stroller had sunk.  In the darkness I tried to maneuver it to follow the crowd.  The ground was wet (duh – it’s The Netherlands) and we were far off a path.  As I tried to push the stroller I realized not only were we off a path, but we were not even on grass.  The entire stroller started to rapidly mud-slide towards the creek.  I dug my heels into the mud and it continued to slip.  “Honey!  The stroller!  It’s SO MUDDY and we’re sliding!” I shouted.  The monk is moving on, the rest of our group is following his clip pace and I’m the dumb American with the double stroller sliding through the mud shouting English nonsense at her husband while the angel actors on the other side of the canal are cracking up at the scene that I’m making.  My boots, dog, and stroller wheels are freed from the muck as I heroically pull my strength.  “Mama, Where’s the Baby Jesus?” Baby Girl repeats.  (Prompt more angelic laughter.)
  The monk takes some mercy on us and allows us to catch up.  He quickly nods at his caboose and continues through the darkness.   Next stop, the manger, and I give a word of thanks.  Mary is waving away the scent of the donkey which has been tied outside of her scene as the group approaches.  Tyler, still determined to make a four-legged friend, eagerly pulls at his leash to get a closer look at the donkey.  “Mama!  Baby Jesus!” she shouts above the peacefulness.   20 Dutch heads turn toward us.  Half smile.  Half don’t.  Well, at least Mary doesn’t mind the realness of the event, I reasoned.  She probably enjoys the comedic relief compared to the farting livestock. . .
  The monk left us behind again as we tried to put our wandering daughter back in the stroller, make a bottle for Little Man, hand Baby Girl a cracker, drag Tyler away from the donkey, etc. The next monk guide and his tour group come up behind.  He basically said ‘get a move on, we have a schedule to maintain around here” and we decided we’d take an exit, since the five of us were getting restless anyway.  The wise men and shepherds would have to wait until next year, and we had Gluhwein at home. 
Decorating our Christmas Tree for Daddy
   We participated in other Dutch Christmas traditions.  As I drove my daughter to school her last week in December, I eyed a man expertly riding his bike while accomplishing the most amazing of tasks.  He steered his bike with his left while balancing a 4-foot potted Christmas tree with his right.  My first thought was: “Wow, that’s insane and a feat of insurmountable wonder.  The Dutch can carry anything while riding their bikes.”  My second thought was: “Huh, if he can balance a bike while carrying a Christmas tree – surely I can somehow get one home, too.”  We had brought an artificial Christmas tree with us from America and it had been decorated for weeks, but my husband, for as long as we’ve been together, has wanted a real one.  So I hashed a plan to surprise him.  I weighed my options – bike, double-stroller, baby carrier or any combination of above.  I even briefly pondered the red flyer wagon we brought with us that’s been in the shed but between my jumping baby boy and the fact that it’s a red flyer wagon (could I possibly attract any more attention than riding a neon green bike?  Yes.  I believe I could.). . . I just have not bothered to take it out in public.  I pushed the double stroller to the foot of the DeValk windmill where a make-shift Christmas tree lot had been constructed in the parking lot.  It was located about ½ mile (800 meters) from our house.    Baby Girl was pleased with the process – as Linus and Charlie Brown had performed the very same task.  I pointed to a few 4-foot potted Christmas trees and asked “how much?”  “15 Euros” the man said.  “One-Five?”  “Ja.”  I’ve never bought a live Christmas tree before, but it sounded like a pretty good deal to me.  “Here, this one.  Very nice.”  He pointed to a small one and I agreed.  “I put in bag for you, yes?”  “Yes – dank u vel.  I saw a man on a bike yesterday carrying one home, I thought – surely I could get one home, too.”  He smiled at me with disinterest.  I know that the Dutch Kerstboom vendor doesn’t care about my personal quest and reasoning behind getting his tree home, but as an American stay-at-home-mom in The Netherlands, I still can’t help but talk to any adult I can and try to engage them in conversation, regardless of the results.  “Here.  Carry in arm.” He told me.  “It’s de easiest way.”  I wrapped my right arm around the pot with the tree towering above me while steering the stroller with my left hand.  No problem – I’ve got this.  I started my half-mile trek home – two kids, double stroller, and what turned out to be, a 25 lb (11 kg) Christmas tree.  Holy smokes. . . I thought to myself – this sucker is heavy!  Why are all the short trees potted?   My comforter-like jacket started to suffocate me.  Steam was being trapped underneath my hat.  I shifted and balanced the tree on the handlebars of the stroller.  Between the kids, the stroller, and the tree, I was pushing a barge close to my own weight.  Cars stopped to let me pass at places where stopping was optional.  We approached our house with glee and I hauled the tree up to the third floor sitting area.  “We did it!” I exclaimed to my daughter – one of her favorite phrases.  Then we set back out to the local CVS-equivalent (Kruidvat) to buy some European converted Christmas lights.  Needless to say, V was quite surprised and impressed with the cute real tree obtained and decorated with love when he came home that night.   We even thought to decorate it in his favorite colors – purple and gold. 
Church Service at St. Pieterskerk
  Our family rode our bikes to the Christmas Eve service at the St. Pieterskerk – the late-gothic church in Leiden which took 180 years to build (starting in 1390).  As I imagined generations of families for hundreds of years humbly and joyfully approaching the beautiful church to pay homage to God and to celebrate the birth of his son, I was catapulted into the present.  When the kids weren’t screaming, they were running all over the cathedral, attracting attention and stressing me out in this kid-friendly service.  After attempting to sing Silent Night in Dutch with my children (my favorite song) I thought we’d “beat the rush” and hop on our bikes and head home a little early.  Perhaps next year will be a little more. . . meaningful.  Who has a Normal-Rockwell-esque Christmas Eve service experience with two kids, anyway. . . no matter what continent you’re on? 
  V had already spent Christmas Eve dealing with settling Oma’s estate and worrying about work.  We had not wrapped presents yet (as present shopping had been pushed and pushed back due to Oma’s business and shorted shopping hours – I’ve gotten used to a lot, but stores closing at 5 p.m. two days before Christmas threw me for a loop).  As we pedaled home after the Peiterskerk challenge, I thought – you know, the kids won’t know any different, there’s no other family counting on us, let’s give ourselves a break.  We need one more day – let’s take it.  So we did.  
Ice Skating Rink on top of the canal
  We did not open gifts on December 25th.  Instead, we took a long walk through town on Christmas Day – all six of us, dogs included.  Weeks ago, we had seen the town erect an ice skating rink on top of the canal adjacent to the Town Hall.  With the whole family there, and the crowd on the ice diminished because of the holiday, we decided that Christmas Day was the perfect opportunity to take Baby Girl ice skating.  “Who do you want to take you skating?  Mama or Daddy?” we asked.  “Both,” she said.  “I’m sorry – but one of us has to stay with Little Man,” we explained.  “Mama, Daddy, Baby Girl, AND Little Man skate,” she said.  Hearts melted.  In the midst of all our questionable decisions, I think we’ve done something right.  In the end, she chose me (who hoo!) and Daddy took pictures of us skating – Baby Girl on the bright orange seal and me pushing her around the ice methodically following a counter-clockwise circle like the American I Am.  (Everyone else was just throwing themselves from end to end).    After our walk, we put the kids to bed for naptime.  V and I heated up some Gluhwein, wrapped gifts, and watched Christmas Vacation for the 100th time this year.  Later that night, we feasted on fajitas and Skyped with my parents and sister.  Celebrating Christmas after a full day of equal parts excitement and relaxation, plus the connection with family seemed like the appropriate thing to do, anyway. 
Baby Girl & I Ice Skating on Christmas Morning
    All in all, it was a lovely holiday full of enchantment, wonder, offset by a little homesickness.  It was the first Christmas ever I spent away from my any of my family, but after a year of so many ‘firsts’ it seemed okay.  We did not have a White Christmas, unlike all my friends back in Dallas – after wearing a jacket 80% of the year, I have to say I may have been a little bit jealous – but with that, I know I experienced the Christmas of a lifetime – and the bells, inside my heart, and outside the town hall, were definitely ringing. 



  1. Hello! It sounds like you had a lovely holiday. We were in Holland for the holidays and we also went skating, same orange skates with the same orange sea lion (?) I had to chuckle thinking about friends back in the states that would NEVER ice skate sans helmet. I have to tell you, I really admire your perseverance.
    Happy New Year!

  2. Brilliant Celeste! Your description of hauling your real tree back home had me cracking up. It is so real nd that is hat makes it genius. :-) Jill