Born on New Year’s Day

Written by Bert Plomp

Celebrating a birthday at my parents’ home used to be quite a farce. If, like me, you celebrated your birthday on New Year’s Day, you were in a bit of a pickle.
Only my parents’ birthdays were celebrated, in the sense that the house would be filled with visitors in the evening, and there would be drinks and nibbles. Especially my mother’s birthday was celebrated grandly, at least by the standards of those days. These were rather pleasant gatherings with her extensive family since my mother came from a family of sixteen children.
In addition to the usual cheese and pickles on toothpicks with a slice of bologna wrapped around, also pierced by a wooden toothpick, pastries were served with coffee. These simple pastries came from the pastry chef’s school. Through the intervention of a former colleague of my parents from their Salvation Army days, these treats were purchased from the school. The former colleague was called Ter Steege, and we referred to him as Old Ter Steege.
The reason my parents chose this treat was that pastries prepared by a baker in training couldn’t match the quality of those made by an experienced pastry chef. The practice pastries were therefore much cheaper. Since there were no notable gourmands among the birthday visitors, this choice was quickly made.
Old Ter Steege was involved in the order because the particular school was located near his little home on Andreasstraat. Moreover, he had an eye for quality. The old man began his important mission a day before the birthday. With a note in his pocket stating the quantity and the requirement for mixed pastries, he went to the apprentice pastry chefs and placed the order.
The next day, I was dispatched on my Tomos to pick up the order from the intermediary. When receiving the pastries, the box was, of course, first opened so I could verify with my own eyes that the contents matched the placed order. However, Old Ter Steege had a runny nose in both summer and winter. While he opened the box and nodded in approval, assuming that I would take his approval with a nod, it sometimes happened that drops from his nasal organ would fall onto the delicious pastries.
At the evening coffee, I still vividly remembered which pastries had received a touch of saltiness. There was never a pastry left.
My birthday was hardly celebrated, simply because it was New Year’s Day, and the heaviest always took precedence. The first day of the year was dedicated to the family gathering at my grandparents’ home.
Waking up on the morning of my birthday, there was no reason to look forward to something with excitement. No anticipation of the moment when I would be eagerly awaited by the entire family, filled with congratulations and gifts. None of that. The best I could hope for was a handshake with the addition of “congratulations.” Even that was often not the case because I had already received a handshake at midnight. In those days, it was considered excessive to wish someone good luck more than once for the same event.
I can’t remember a real gift from that time. But there was a silver rijksdaalder for my piggy bank. My brothers and sister were not much better off. But their birthdays were not reduced to nothing by coinciding with a holiday.
But every disadvantage has its advantage, to speak with a famous philosopher. Once the minimum anniversary obligations were fulfilled, our family rushed to Nicolaasdwarsstraat for the big family celebration of the new year.
My advantage was that the whole family was gathered there. Then, there were quickly about fifty partygoers. In this extensive group of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and nephews, my mother was considerate enough to draw attention to me. To gently remind everyone that it was my birthday today.
Upon this, I was invariably invited to pass the hat around. That made up for a lot. My family was more willing to fill my hat than the collection plate in church.
The rest of the day was always enjoyable. While the older folks smoked and enjoyed advocaat and brandy-soaked raisins, the young people could frolic in the gymnasium connected to the house. Swinging ropes, springboards, gymnastic equipment, and wall bars, everything was there to burn off excess energy.
The gymnasium belonged to the school where my grandfather had become the caretaker after retiring from the railway.
All in all, my birthday was not that bad. But the celebration was nothing like what I had experienced with my friends. They were in the spotlight from the moment they left their beds until they were tucked in again, and they couldn’t do any wrong all day long.


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