Memories of my childhood at this time of year are filled with platters of chocolate-dipped cream puffs and a dazzling array of tarts, cookie tins filled with speculaas and pepernootjes and gevulde koeken, and fancy bowls brimming with candies of every imaginable colour and flavour.
Though some of the goodies came direct from Holland in an annual care package from family there, most – like the pastry snakes and letters filled with marzipan – were fashioned by Mom in the week leading up to Christmas, and continually replenished with more baking during the feast week – always with as much interference as possible from the children!
As New Year’s Eve approached, trays of pickled herring and of raw herring slathered in chopped onions would begin to appear, while the deep-fryer would start yielding oliebollen, to be dipped in icing sugar before being consumed as quickly as Mom could drop more spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil.
But at the pinnacle – the absolute peak of the feast – were Mom’s special beef croquettes which took days to produce, and consequently were only ever produced in the last days of the year. They were plunged into the deep fryer only in the dying minutes of each year, and slathered in mustard, rarely would even one survive to experience the countdown into the New Year.
And eggnog simmered in Dutch gin… I almost forgot the eggnog! Even we little ones would be blessed with a tiny taste – perhaps a teaspoon – of that ambrosia.
We are now living in the last days.
No, not the Last Days, as in the end of time… although, watching the news some nights certainly raises that possibility.
We are in the last days of 2018.
This part of the year is party time, and not just because of Christmas or New Year’s Day. It was a time of feasting and celebration long before the Christians co-opted winter solstice festivities to mark their Saviour’s birthday. Indeed, the likelihood that Jesus of Nazareth was actually born on Dec. 25 is no better than one chance in 365.
Pre-Christian cultures all over the northern hemisphere (where practically everybody who was anybody lived back then) had known for millennia about the winter solstice, when days started getting longer again after a long period of relentless shortening.
The return of light after dark days meant that spring was coming, a time of planting and renewal. If you were a Christian facing religious extinction as the Dark Ages were descending, what better metaphor could you hope to find for the birth of the guy you believe could bring light back to a darkening world?
Plus, when you’re desperate to replenish your ranks with new recruits, you don’t score extra points by shutting down their annual party-time… so you simply change the reason for the party.
Today, we string coloured lights to celebrate the joy of the season, instead of lighting bonfires to remind the gods that we need the sun’s light to survive.
And we eat.
Ye gads! We eat!