PINE SCENT AND VOMIT
Written by Bert Plomp
December is, for me, the coziest month of the year. It was that way in the past, it remains so, and it will likely stay that way. As I write this, I am staying with Cynthia and our four Border Collies in our forest house in the mountains of Dingle. While the large wood stove is roaring, I listen to a collection of beautiful Celtic Christmas music. In the background, I hear the sound of crackling pine wood in the stove. This crackling is almost drowned out by the roar of water cascading down below. The wild water, flowing through the mountain stream in front of the house, makes its way over a series of waterfalls to the Atlantic Ocean.
From my desk, set up in front of one of the skylights in the living room on the first floor, I look out at the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding mountains.
This year, too, there is no Christmas tree in the house. Our forest home is already abundantly surrounded by ‘Christmas trees.’ By thousands of different pine trees. Moreover, scattered along the river, there are holly trees everywhere. In that respect, there are more than enough Christmas decorations. On the other hand, inside, there are large candles flickering here and there. As far as I’m concerned, Christmas has already begun.
Because Saint Nicholas used to mean next to nothing at home with my parents, and there was rarely anything of significance to unwrap on that day, I found the days around Christmas and New Year much more enjoyable.
In the fifties and sixties, it was very unusual to exchange gifts because of Christmas. The birth of the baby was considered a more than sufficient gift for all of humanity. Therefore, I didn’t have to feel embarrassed compared to other children because there was nothing waiting for me under the tree.
As soon as the man with the mitre had left and the baby had started its annual march, a massive Christmas tree was placed on the shopping square in my neighborhood. This happened not only in Napoleon Square but simultaneously in various other places in the city. The municipality set up such a Christmas tree and decorated it with hundreds of lights.
Although the shopping square was enclosed between apartment buildings, you could immediately smell the wonderfully tingling, fresh scent of a pine forest in the wide surroundings.
When it started to get dark around four o’clock in the afternoon, and the lights were turned on, it seemed as if a switch was flipped for the local residents. Everyone immediately found themselves in a cheerful mood. As if with the burning of the Christmas lights, people on the street instantly felt more sympathetic to each other.
The burning Christmas tree had the additional advantage that, thanks to the extra light, soccer could be played on the square for a little longer. Although the length of the playing field was significantly shortened due to the space the tree took up.
The last day before the Christmas vacation was the most beautiful school day of the year. On that day, we not only went home earlier at the elementary school, but everyone’s Christmas arrangement was also unveiled to the public. These self-made decorations were made in the weeks leading up to the holiday. Equipped with a real, burning candle, they were exhibited on the tables in all the classes. The whole school smelled of fresh pine greenery and burning candle wax.
After a beautiful Christmas story from your teacher, accompanied by a mug of hot chocolate and a buttered slice of currant bread with almond paste, the general concluding Christmas celebration took place in the school’s auditorium. At that finale, the students from the higher classes performed a self-directed play. With the play ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ I once made a sensation and left a lasting impression on fellow students and teachers.
At home, it was also quite cozy during the Christmas period. Although I couldn’t appreciate all the Christmas music that came to us via the radio, from the Salvation Army, and other Christian institutions at the time. Still, that music brought a peaceful atmosphere into the house. A mood that was otherwise hard to find. Games were played, and there were tasty snacks to enjoy.
Christmas night, exactly at midnight, we were also treated at home to a thick buttered slice of Christmas stollen and a mug of hot chocolate. I always ate the currant bread around the almond paste first from that slice. I saved the sweet filling for the last few bites. Others either spread the almond paste over the whole slice or spooned it out first. I preferred to save the best for last.
I must confess that I still uphold that tradition. There are few treats that you can please me more with. Moreover, playing Christmas music from a Salvation Army brass band in the background completes the whole.
After devouring the Christmas stollen, it was high time to do justice to the baby. Initially, a spiritual connection was sought with the little one in the crib via the radio, later via the TV. This connection was established by tuning in to a broadcast of a Christmas mass in some church. After the mass, everyone dove into their own crib with a peaceful and contented feeling.
Once, the buildup to a peaceful atmosphere on Christmas Eve was very rudely disturbed, at least in my parents’ eyes. This happened when Charles and I, at the beginning of this holy evening, decided to watch the Christmas special of ‘Sjef van Oekel.’
In that special episode, a thoroughly drunk Sjef lay sprawled out on the street. There he stuck his head into the bicycle bag of Pastor Bongers, after which he vomited into this bag. Meanwhile, the reverend from the youth pastorate was inside. There he stood, with a large glass of gin in his hand, preparing a Christmas sermon.
My parents were truly beside themselves. They tried with all their might to prematurely terminate this godless VPRO presentation. However, Charles and I were already big and strong enough to prevent them from doing so. It was a rather brutal start to the Christmas of the two brothers.