Part 2: Christmas tree hunt

Written by Bert Plomp

After Christmas, before the end of the year, my attention shifted to collecting Christmas trees. All those beautiful fir trees that had been cut from the forest for just a few weeks of Christmas celebration. Now they lay desolate on the street, discarded like old garbage. Stripped of their lights, they were dumped there the day after Christmas.
Some of those trees were thrown down without mercy from the fourth floor. Some made that descent while still partially decorated. Adorned with angel hair and silver garlands. Sometimes even with a miniature crib with baby Jesus. Baby Jesus, You come from up so high, and you land on the street. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.
So quickly it could go with a Christmas tree that had been adored just the day before. Dropping the tree simultaneously replaced the peaceful Christmas atmosphere with the grim reality of everyday life.

There was a true battle around New Year’s Eve, between boys from my neighborhood and those from rivaling areas, to get their hands on discarded Christmas trees.
The goal was to see who ultimately gathered the most trees. Who could drag the biggest pile of trees together for the Christmas tree bonfire. Violence was used if necessary in acquiring the trees.
Each ‘gang’ had a secret location. A hidden place where the trees were stashed away. This storage place was fiercely defended against a hostile takeover.
There was real fighting for the trees. Gathering places were repeatedly raided and looted.
If you had managed to grab a tree somewhere on the street, you had to hurry with it like a rabbit to the ‘safe’ storage place. You had to be constantly on guard. Always be careful not to be shadowed. Watch out not to be overtaken and forced by violence to reveal the location of the storage place during transport. In short, plenty of tension.

Boys we clashed with during the Christmas tree hunt came from Sterrenwijk, Kovelaarstraat, and Van Ostadelane.
By the way, these were the same boys we often played football against in less heated times. Football matches with them were often quite intense too.
At the end of the ‘Christmas tree war,’ the trees were burned en masse. The gangs brought their loot to a central place. There, often under the leadership and supervision of the fire department, the whole pile of trees was set ablaze.
My friends and I preferred to set those trees on fire ourselves, somewhere along the Kromme Rijn. Such a bonfire took place at a time and place of our own choosing and was therefore uncontrolled. We always had some buckets of water from the river ready in case the fire threatened to get out of hand.

In the lead-up to New Year’s Eve, we were mainly busy setting off fireworks. In between, we gorged ourselves on Dutch doughnuts (oliebollen) and apple turnovers.
These treats were not ordered by the box from some bakery. They were simply baked at home. A washbasin full right away. It was a feast to be able to taste the baked creations at different friends’ homes. Often, by the time the clock struck twelve, you couldn’t stand another Dutch doughnut or apple turnover.
As soon as Christmas was over, fireworks were already going off everywhere. Compared to the current arsenal of rockets and explosives, the fireworks of that time were of much lighter caliber.
Every neighborhood had a few fireworks enthusiasts. People who spent a lot of money to be in the spotlight for one evening a year. However, my circle of friends rarely got further than firing off some petty firecrackers and lighting sparklers. With those sparklers, you ran a big risk of scorching your fingers once the stick was almost burned down. It became quite annoying when someone threw such a glowing thing into your neck.

I could always intensely enjoy the smell of burning fireworks and the gunpowder fumes hanging everywhere. The firecrackers we shot were corks filled with gunpowder. Such a cork was pushed into the barrel of a corresponding pistol. After pulling the trigger, the cork exploded with a loud bang. We thought it was fun to scare some unsuspecting neighbors here and there. Then we shot such a firecracker into their mailbox. At that time, we never thought for a moment that people and animals could be frightened to death by such an action.

At midnight, everyone came out into the street to wish each other the best for the new year. That was a safe and enjoyable encounter. The police or riot police never had to take action to manage this get-together.
On New Year’s Day, I got up early to collect fireworks on the street together with my friends. We gathered fire arrows, firecrackers, and jumping jacks that had not fully ignited.
The found fireworks, often with little or very short fuses, were then lit anyway. The slogan “You’re a fool if you mess around with fireworks” did not catch on in those days. It can truly be called a miracle that no fingers were lost in my circle of friends during this time.


For all episodes, click on: Peace on earth

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