Memories of a Dutch Christmas

Mariette Van Schijndel and her daughter Avianca. 187281

By Narelle Coulter

When Mariette Van Schijndel was growing up in the Dutch town of Oss, Christmas was one of the most magical times of the year.

Mariette, the owner of Berwick’s A Touch of Dutch, has fond memories of December rituals shared with her parents, four siblings and extended family.

“Christmas time was really family and religion. We would go to church for midnight Mass the night before Christmas. It would be pitch dark and often snowing but there were lights everywhere. The atmosphere was overwhelming, quite magical for a child,“ Mariette said.

“It was always a beautiful Mass and there would be candles everywhere in the church.“

After Mass, the family would walk home to enjoy sausage rolls made by Mariette’s mother hot out of the oven.

Christmas breakfast was fresh bread rolls, sweet bread thick with dried fruit, meats, cheese and jam.

A keenly anticipated treat was kerstkrans, which translates to ’Christmas disks’ – puff pastry circles filled with almond paste.

“Then there was the gramophone and music all day. We would have coffee and handmade cakes and pastries. There was food all day, all of it home made,“ remembered Mariette.

“We would all be talking together. It was very much all about family.“

A Christmas tree would flicker and glow with real candles lit by Mariette’s father.

“The tree would go up a week before Christmas and the whole house would smell (of pine). It was wonderful.“

Christmas dinner was four courses starting with prawn cocktail and a clear soup, followed by roast turkey or rabbit with lots of vegetables. For dessert Mariette’s mother always made a special bundt cake sprinkled with sugar.

Presents weren’t given on Christmas Day, rather children were given small gifts on 5 December to mark Sinterklaas or St Nicholas Day.

At 5pm a neighbour or relative would knock on the door pretending to be St Nicholas and leave presents in a basket.

“Mum would make dolls’ clothing or pyjamas for us in all different colours. My mum was good with her hands so we had beautiful things as presents. We were happy with our gifts. It was after the war and we didn’t know any better.“

Another special treat was the gift of a chocolate letter representing each child’s name.

It’s a tradition many families of Dutch origin still observe today. This year Mariette has more than 100 orders for chocolate letters.

“I still do it with my own kids and they are in their 30s,“ Mariette said, laughing.

“If I don’t do it, it’s not the same because traditions have value, they stand for something.

“People should embrace whatever their traditions are. That’s what makes Christmas so interesting.“

The festive season was rounded out on New Year’s Eve when Mariette and her family would gather with neighbours to watch fireworks and enjoy oliebollen, deep fried doughnuts with apple and raisins.

Mariette’s first hot Australian Christmas was in Adelaide in 1977.

She was invited to a party on Christmas Day and asked by the host to bring a plate.

“I didn’t realise you had to put something on the plate,“ she said, laughing.

“How embarrassing. I just thought they might not have enough plates.“

Christmas is the busiest time of year at Touch of Dutch for Mariette and husband Peter as customers seek traditional Dutch festive food and gifts.

Mariette said a popular gift were traditional Elias brand t-towels.

“The best thing a Dutch woman can have,“ she said shaking out a 100 per cent cotton t-towel featuring lady birds.

“They last forever because they are still made like they were in the olden days.“

“One of my favourite parts of (owning A Touch of Dutch) is that we help people who are homesick.

“A lady came in the other day and picked up a packet of oliebollen. She had the biggest smile on her face.

“(The Netherlands) are very far away so it helps people to talk and remember.“

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