One of those memories that seem to hover around in my obstinately persisting recollection of childhood events is the loveliness of a ‘White Christmas.’ Christmas is so soon after the celebration of St.Nicholaas, (the National typical Dutch event whereby kids behave, but only till they receive their presents, after that it is back to normal and they run riot again), that as with many childhood memories, they often get mixed up or somewhat embellished.
For me, the White Christmas was always tinted and coloured by an event, which would have to be one of the most bizarre that any child could ever have hoped for in experiencing. As our lives unroll and routine sets in, it could be said that a kind of yawning repetition at times takes over, hence the relying by me anyway, on seeking respite in childhood events. Here is just one of those. Enjoy.
It could never be claimed that my dad was a cook or that domestic duties came naturally to him. He worked, smoked his Douwe Egberts rollies, sat in his ‘easy chair’ and mum had the kids and cooked. However, there was one level of cooking which he excelled in, even though he practiced this just one day a year. It was the art of making a sweet that used to adorn our Christmas tree and from memory was called fondantjes. They are a kind of icy sugary sweet which is infused with a strong rather delicate taste of, in our Dad’s culinary efforts, almond and lemon essence. My dad had perfected this sweet into an art form and he never deserted or diverted away from this. Almond and lemon essence ‘fondantjes’ it would be and it is now etched into my memory as clear as the smell and taste of ‘pepernoten’ at Sinterklaas. Almost as defining of whom I am as the rest of the debris of past experiences.
The making of the fondantjes was, as far as I can recollect, my dad standing in our kitchen mixing up sugar, lots of it, with butter into a slurry into which ,like a magic sorcerer’ he would add the almond and lemon essence. The lot was re-stirred, heated and poured into many different metal shapes with holes in the middle. Those metal shapes were, like the rest of the Christmas paraphernalia kept in a box underneath my parents’ bed. I know this because as a kid I was insanely curious about the world I happened to be born into and used to spy around our family house hoping to find magic and secret discoveries of some forbidden kind giving, hopefully, some meaning to my life. Together with the metal fondant moulds under my parents’ conjugal bed were also collections of metal spring loaded clips which would be used to clamp real candles onto the spruce tree.
The Christmas tree in Europe is or was real spruce and not mere pine. Now-a-days they are most likely to be those universal type trees of which we screw in metal branches, stored in flat packs while not in use. Everything gets debased and becomes so much uglier as the years go by. I noticed a new updated version. It works like an umbrella. Just push a button and the tree pops up, decorations and all!
On Christmas Eve, dad ceremoniously and with some typical Dutch paternal authority would announce for us kids to assemble in the lounge room as he would now put up the tree with the hanging of decorations, the kids would be needed to hang the fondantjes. Remember they were poured into those metal containers with a hole in the middle? Of course, none were to be eaten. What parent would set children to task dealing with the most aromatic and sweetest of sweets delights and not eat them, I ask? Well, we were allowed to lick the slurry pan’s remnants. Some consolation! He was a good dad.
The idea of hanging the fondant was to hide them as much as possible amongst the dense branches of the spruce-tree; nothing must come too easy, a valuable lesson for the future. After the fondant came the decorations and the candle clips with the specially bought candles that would fit into the designated hole of the clip, the same as the strings for hanging the fondant were threaded through their holes. All were suspended from this glorious laden Charismas tree.
The desired ‘white Christmas’ happened often. Of course we are talking pre-climate change. Then, Christmas morning were always announced by stillness. Snow was the perfect sound insulator; all was muffled, including the cuckeldee-doo from the Leghorn rooster down at ground zero below us, adding to a special reverential atmosphere. The authentic spirit of Christmas. It took some heroic acceptance years later to admit that, bogong moths, the bikini Bondi surf and the all pervasive smell of stale beer with simmering heat above the susburban asphalt were part of a different Christmas, just as valid (but not quite as lovely for me yet.).
The deliverance of the fondant sweets was carefully arranged to last as long as possible and at least as long as the Christmas tree would remain green. A strict rationing was in order. Why not? So many foodstuffs just after the war were still rationed and still needed coupons in exchange. As kids we were happy to have warm socks, bread and both parents to tuck us into a warm bed. The Christmas sweets were an undreamed of luxury.
Of course, as the fondants got eaten, carefully and at pre-determined times, the tree all lit up by burning candles still managed to hide remnants of those desirable sweets; they never would stale! But…one day as the tree yellowed and the candles started to burn ever downwards towards their stumpy ends, one of those greedily licked around the bone dry turpentine loaded twig with needles and within seconds our glorious tree caught fire. Total mayhem. My father looked on in total astonishment. This was totally unordered and not allowed in Holland as if this alone would temper the fire and all would come good on its own accord. It did not.
As my father spent precious seconds in total inaction, the tree still loaded with the fondant did not. It soon became more than a serious incendiary device, ready to engulf all and everything in its path. Time was of the essence now. Just when everything seemed doomed my dad regained the initiative and sprung into ‘action man’, became the predecessor of Batman.
His eyes, something I’ll never forget. My instant Rin Tin Tin hero- man. He opened both windows with one mighty movement in one arm and with the other, with split second precision, grabbed the burning tree, and, (Werner Von Braun would have been so proud)’ hurled the tree like a V2rocket spearheading down to ground zero, fondant and all. He saved our family. Sure there were some protesting cacklings and consternations from the chooks down below. It wasn’t every day that a burning tree would end up in their coup and the rooster did have some singed feathers, but so what.
Dad had saved our family. My hero!