Because I’m the son of a minister, people have always assumed that Christmas was my favorite time of year.
To tell you the truth: it wasn’t.
In fact, every year I was glad it was over.
In the weeks leading up to the celebration of the birth of Christ, our home became a very stressful place where kids had to walk on eggshells.
My mom was responsible for Sunday School, and for the inescapable Nativity Play. Every year she had to deal with parents harassing her because their son or daughter was selected to be an ox, an ass, or worse, a tree.
My dad was crazy busy writing too many sermons on the subject of world peace, hoping to make an impression on those who only came to church at the end of December. His calendar was dominated by one social function after another. He was often asked to bring the whole family to singalongs, nursing homes, hospitals, and countless receptions.
During those hectic weeks, my sister and I got an idea of what it must feel like to be part of the First Family. We had to be on our best behavior, as we were getting stuffed with sugary treats from sweet old ladies. It gave us tons of energy, and we had nowhere to put it.
At the end of this grueling marathon, we visited both sets of grandparents in Friesland, all the way in the north of the country. By that time, it became harder and harder for our family to keep up appearances, especially when familial buttons would be pushed. And believe me, around the holidays those buttons only needed to be touched lightly to have maximum effect. It was only a matter of time before one of us would either explode or collapse.
“Thank God Christmas is over,” my dad used to say, and he meant every word of it.
When he left his congregation to become Head of Pastoral Services at a university hospital, Christmas became a bit more relaxed for all involved. I learned to play the cornet, and I joined a local band. It was one of those marching bands that -thank goodness- did very little marching. We did have a special Christmas tradition.
In the early hours of Christmas Day, a select group of musicians would go to different street corners, and play a number of carols. We did that for an hour or so, and then all of us would have breakfast at a nursing home. This had been going on for so long that most of the people in my town felt like it wasn’t really Christmas until the caroling band had woken them up at the crack of dawn.
Getting to as many street corners as possible with a bunch of brass players was not as easy as it sounds. We used to arrive in separate cars to do our thing, until two brothers offered to help. One played the tuba and the other French horn, and both drove what was known in Holland as “SRV-vans.” These vans looked like huge motor homes or bookmobiles. They were actually supermarkets on wheels, and miracles of technical ingenuity.
Almost anything a local supermarket would stock, was for sale in these vans. They sold only one brand of peanut butter, coffee, or laundry detergent, but for many customers it was very convenient to have these goods arrive at their doorstep. On top of that, these vans were electrical, and thus very environmentally friendly.
So, imagine a group of musicians arriving on a cold and dark winter morning. The streets were usually slippery, and driving conditions were hazardous. Our lips would nearly freeze to our mouthpieces, but we were determined to fulfill our mission. Moments later, the two SRV-vans would arrive, filled to the brim with all kinds of groceries.
When the whole group was ready, we split up into two teams to cover different parts of town. One by one, you’d see trumpets, trombones, euphoniums, and basses get into the vans. Inside, we tried to find a safe space in between heads of lettuce, orange juice, cheeses, bread flour, milk, and the Holiday edition of Playboy. It was a very tight fit.
From the very beginning, it was clear that these vans were not made for public transportation, especially if the roads were covered in snow and ice. Those inside had to hold on for dear life when these vehicles rounded corners. That wasn’t easy with a brass instrument in one hand. Everything inside would start to shift, and I vividly remember round Edam cheeses falling off the shelves like cannonballs.
Because there were no side windows, we often had no idea where we’d stop, if we’d stop at all. Thanks to the added weight, the vans would slide a couple of extra meters on a frozen road after the driver had stepped on the brake. With so many passengers on board, his windscreen was all fogged up, and it was a miracle that we never collided with anything dead or alive.
If my cornet would survive the Christmas ride without bumps and bruises, I’d be a happy man. If I’d survive the ride, my parents would be extremely relieved.
Looking back, it was a crazy thing we did, and yet I didn’t want to miss it for anything in the world. We knew how many people were counting on us, and we were willing to take the risk.
There still are about three hundred supermarkets on wheels in The Netherlands, serving rural communities and the elderly. They’re long gone from the town I used to live in, but the last time I was there I heard a persistent rumor.
If you happen to wake up early on December 25th, you may hear the faint sound of a brass band playing carols in the cold.
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice