Holiday Confusion

Yesterday I realised belatedly that I had neglected to buy chocolate eggs to hide for my children. It’s not too late; I’m pretty sure at least one of the five or six grocery stores within walking distance of my house is open today, even though most of them were uncharacteristically closed yesterday evening. There was a sort of palpable holiday feeling around the city last night. It’s the beginning of Easter weekend, and a two-week Meivakantie (May school vacation) for the kids, and King’s Day is next Saturday. Besides which, the weather is gorgeously sunny and warm; the cafés and restaurants had put every spare table outside, and they were all full of happy people.

We are holidaying along with the rest of them. Tony and I spontaneously went out to dinner last night, which is unusual for us dedicated brunch people. Next week his parents arrive, and we will be off on an official tulip excursion and then a road trip to Germany and Denmark. But in the meantime it is Easter. And it just occurred to me that I am feeling that familiar holiday confusion. What was I supposed to do for Easter? I feel like I used to know. I mean, here is actual photographic evidence that I once hid Easter eggs for my kid to collect.

And that in a former life I painstakingly made natural dyes out of red cabbage, walnut shells, onion skins and turmeric.

Here in the Netherlands they don’t really go in for filling plastic eggs with jelly beans and robin egg Whoppers. Nor have I ever seen a single colour or shape of Peeps. However, chocolate eggs are very much a thing. Not, sadly, the giant artistic chocolate eggs that used to mesmerise me in Italian shop windows.

Just the miniature foil-wrapped version, colour-coded for all the different filling flavours. From the delectable gourmet Belgian chocolatier Leonidas, if you can get them (a friend brought these a few weeks ago, but they got eaten pretty much on the spot).

Or the grocery brand in weird flavours like cappuccino and advocaat (a sort of brandy-laced version of eggnog) if you forgot until the day before, like I did. I have no real excuse not to have bought these eitjes (little eggs). They’re in all the shops. And last year I remember buying them multiple times and hiding them all over the house for weeks before Easter. It’s the sort of haphazard observation of tradition I’ve noticed myself doing lately; a kind of mishmash of half-remembered American traditions and bits and pieces from other countries, maybe even sometimes the one I’m living in at the moment. It’s been this way for awhile, maybe ever since I discovered the multiplicity of ways to celebrate holidays in different countries, and started trying to incorporate traditions from wherever we happened to be living.

Sometimes I had to outright substitute, because foods or other supplies just weren’t available in other countries. Other times we discovered new things we loved so much we just had to keep them wherever we went. Christmas panettone from Italy, for instance, which we’ve had mailed to us, brought home from business trips, and have now figured out how to order beforehand in a plethora of flavours and brands from various Italian shops in Amsterdam. We must have managed to find and eat panettone (and then make the leftovers into French toast the next morning) in at least five different countries by now. There is an Easter version of panettone too, colomba di Pasqua (dove of Easter), which is baked in the shape of a dove. But this year I decided to go full-on Dutch, and get the local version of Easter bread instead: paasbrood.

By the heft of it, this is a much heartier, denser affair of an Easter bread than panettone; it is studded with raisins and stuffed with sweet almond paste. It’s been four years here, and I am only just now trying it, so we will see tomorrow whether it ends up on the permanent Easter menu or not.

Speaking of the Easter menu, we have a more or less consistent tradition of having lamb at Easter, I think as a vague nod at the Passover roots of Easter, back from when we were religious (although we were never Jewish). I always try different recipes, and different cuts of lamb tend to be available in different places. In Tunisia I remember managing a truly impressive bone-in leg of lamb. Here I was happy to find the boneless version, which I should probably see if I need to marinate or something after I finish blogging.

Easter was always a pretty religious holiday for my family growing up, so not being Mormon anymore also adds to my general holiday confusion. Fortunately, a lot of Easter traditions in other countries are also religious, and rather more dramatic than Mormon-style celebrations. For example, a venerable Amsterdam Easter tradition I could really get on board with is going to the Concertgebouw’s famous performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, of which they do several performances over Easter weekend. Maybe next year. I think the best Easter tradition I’ve ever encountered, though, is the wonderful Scoppio del carro in Florence. It is also nominally religious, but involves a Medieval parade, artefacts from the First Crusade, and the biggest cattle in the world (white, with gilded horns), all against the backdrop of the Duomo, out of which an actual mechanical dove flies into a culminating explosion of fireworks. It is quite the sight, and I would gladly make it my ongoing Easter tradition if only an annual trip to Florence were less impractical.

In the meantime Easter is just another of my patchwork celebrations. Holidays are the time when my international life tends to catch up with me. I get all nostalgic and sentimental. I can’t remember half my own traditions, although I am simultaneously sure there used to be dozens for every holiday. I make lists and plans of how tradition-packed next year’s holiday will be. My holiday dinner turns out perfectly. Or I can’t face the idea of cooking a holiday dinner, so we spend Thanksgiving eating totally unrelated food at a restaurant that’s never heard of Thanksgiving. I get overwhelmed with trying to create a new holiday traditions from different cultures. I discover delightful surprises. My tastebuds are tickled by a random seasonal food I’d never heard of. I wish I were “home” with family. I wish I were a kid again. I wonder where I’ll be next year. And every once in awhile I’m happy to be right here, celebrating this particular holiday in this exact place in my own cobbled-together version of home.

One thought on “Holiday Confusion

  • April 22, 2019 at 8:15 am

    I so understand your feelings about celebrations and traditions when you’ve lived in multiple countries, especially while raising kids. I am Dutch, married to an American (so we don’t even have the same cultural background) and haven’t lived in the Netherlands since I married. In various countries I tried to keep up with “Sinterklaas” with the kids, but it only worked in an expat community where we had Dutch friends. It is now forgotten and not part of their lives. Much goes by the wayside! Personal family traditions are probably the best to create, but that is not easy either! Anyway, no paasbrood for me this year, but would have loved having some yesterday and today. So it goes! There are many wonderful experiences gained by living the expat life. Enjoy the tulips!


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