Our Christmas Tree with 30 years of memories attached

More than any other holiday celebrated here in the United States, the Christmas season affects almost every household, whether of Christian origin or not.  Some celebrate it strictly for its religious meaning, most for it non-secular, commercial value.  Among these various households, this season is steeped in traditions, some old, some new – from how and when the Christmas tree is decorated, what other holiday decorations will adorn our homes (like wreaths, nativity scenes, nutcrackers, etc.), what goodies need to be baked and shared, and when and where we will meet with friends and family to celebrate the spirit of this season.  Some of these traditions have been passed down through the generations, some have been borrowed from other ethnic cultures, while some have been uniquely shaped by our own individual tastes and personalities.

The center of all this holiday glitz is most certainly the brightly lit and decorated, whether simple or lavishly, Christmas tree. The Christmas tree tradition was borrowed from the Germans. Its current day significance to the Christmas holiday season can be traced back to the 18th century Protestant Germans of the northern Rhine area. That tradition was eventually brought to America by German immigrants of the late 1700s and early 1800s , and began to gain general popularity in the later half of the 19th century. Here in Detroit, there was a large German immigrant community on the east side by the 1880s, and they were likely responsible for its introduction in this area. By 1920, the Christmas tree would adorn nearly every home, including my father’s second generation Dutch household.

As a child I remember that the Christmas tree was my father’s main contribution to Christmas.  Early in December he would visit the Christmas tree lot located on Gratiot Avenue near Saratoga Hospital and pick out the chosen Christmas tree, usually a Scot pine tree. Arie would bring it home, make a fresh cut in the stump in the garage, then fill a bucket with water and place the tree in it behind the garage.  There it would remain until Christmas Eve, when he would bring it inside the house and set it up in the living room, and carefully decorate it with lights and shiny glass bulbs.  I never understood why it had to occur on Christmas Eve.  For years I thought it had to do with fire safety as Scot pines tend to dry out faster than Douglas fir trees.  But his tradition may have been influenced by his childhood memories, as the German families traditionally set up their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in celebration of Adam and Eve.  Harry may not have known this fact, but I am sure his family followed the practices of their neighbors who introduced this cherished tradition. This tradition in our household would end in 1964 with the passing of my father, maybe out of practicality, but maybe more out of grief as this tradition was too tied to my father.  It would be several years before we would return to that corner lot to choose a real tree for our house, opting to decorate a small table top tree instead.

Today, I no longer make that trip to the Christmas tree lot after several less than memorable moments dealing with real trees.  I think it had a lot to do with picking out the “perfect” tree in the dark, clearly not a good idea!  One of the first trees we set up in our new home, fell down about an hour after struggling to get it in the stand, luckily it had no lights or bulbs on it yet.  It had to be wired to the crown molding in the ceiling.  The last real tree we ever had in our house was our oldest daughter’s first Christmas.  It was so dry we couldn’t even keep it lit very long on Christmas Day.  When it went out the door to the curb a few days later, it was almost bare by the time we managed to shove it out the front door.  That tree that looked so green and fresh at dusk on the lot turned out to be spray painted green and would not take up any water, despite a fresh cut.  So I had enough of that tradition; the following year we went to the local nursery and picked out an artificial tree.  That tree is still assembled each year by me, and over the years has changed its appearance often. The bulbs are mostly red and gold now, and it still has the lighted star at the top, but its the special ornaments that have been collected over the past 25 years that give it meaning . Hanging each ornament brings back so many precious memories, as each such ornament was chosen with a specific meaning in mind.

Over the years since my great-grandparents arrived in America, our family’s Christmas traditions have changed considerably.  Christmas time that first December here in Michigan back in 1890 for my great-grandparents would have been a time for church and family.  The gifts would have been to the church most likely; the Christmas dinner probably a Dutch table – a buffet of cold meats, cheeses, and favorite pastries, like banket.  A trip to the nearest frozen pond to ice skate would have been the main recreation.  Maybe even a special holiday beverage, non-alcoholic for the children.  The Protestant Dutch generally frowned on the drinking of alcohol, but during the December holidays an exception was often made for one special drink.  It is the only time of year that I can ever recall seeing my father indulge in alcohol, and it was in strict moderation – a toast to the holiday with family and hopes for a good new year.

The wooden shoes set out for Sinterklaas have now been replaced with stockings to be filled by Santa Claus.  The gifts are now not just for children but all members of the family, even the family pet.  The time with loved ones this year will be too short due to distance and work constraints.  Some old traditions will move on, replaced with newer ones to cherish.  I hope that you find time this year for both old and new traditions, and to remember all those loved ones who are no longer with us with holiday season.

Prettige Kerstdagen (Merry Christmas).

Ik wens je een prettige vakantie (I wish you a happy holiday)!


With Christmas just two weeks away, cooks across America are busy stocking their pantries with those special ingredients required for their holiday baking.  In fact, the busiest aisle in Meijer (a superstore founded by Frederik Meijer, a Dutch emigrant, in Greenville, Michigan just north of Grand Rapids) this week was the baking aisle, with shoppers piling flours, sugars, mixes, extracts, and colorful decorations into their carts. My great-grandmothers, Helena Reyst and Adrianntje Smouter, were also probably busy this time of year, preparing traditional treats for their families’ celebration of Sinterklaas, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  A trip to the market would have included extra eggs, butter and almonds to make holiday pastries and cookies.

Speaking of cookies, the word comes from the Dutch word, koekje, which means small baked cake. Cooks would test the temperature of their ovens by placing a small dollop of batter into the oven first before baking their goods.  Eventually these small testers would evolve into popular bite-size treats.  It is said that the early Dutch settlers in New York and Pennsylvania introduced the cookie to America. 

Cookies are definitely my passion; I find it extremely difficult to bypass a plate of them. Guess you might say it is in the genes. Growing up we did have two traditional Dutch cookies in our house Dutch windmill cookies and, at Christmas, my mom would make Jan Hagel cookies.

Dutch windmill cookies, Speculaas, are a traditional cookie baked during the celebration of Sinterklaas.  We are most familiar with these cookies in the shape of windmills.  But they can be found in various shapes, the most common being the windmill, Sinterklaas, Sinterklaas on his horse, and Dutch children dressed in traditional Dutch clothing and wooden shoes. Speculaas means biscuit, and it is a crisp, spiced almond cookie traditionally baked in wooden molds.  Here in Michigan there are three bakeries that distribute the cookies, Archway (originally founded in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1936, it has been bought out by Lance, Inc. and are now produced in Ohio), Voortman (founded in 1951 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada by Dutch emigrant brothers and now distributed from Burlington, Ontario, Canada near Toronto) and Steenstra’s (founded in 1947 by the Steenstra family in Wyoming, Michigan and now located in Hudsonville, Michigan just south of Grand Rapids).  Of the three, I like the Steenstra’s variety the best as they taste the most like homemade cookies, and is the only one of the three bakeries to make speculaas in various shapes all centered on the tale of Sinterklaas. Here in the Metropolitan Detroit area, all three varieties are usually available at Meijer.

If you are really adventurous you can try your hand at making Speculaas.  You don’t need wooden molds, a rolling-pin and some holiday cookie cutters will do.  But if you want to be authentic you can invest in some wooden cookie molds.  Land O’Lakes also offers a slightly different version that you might want to try. Or you might want to try Gevulde Speculaas, which have an almond paste filling pressed between two layers of dough.

So this holiday my cookies will include both Jan Hagel and Speculaas cookies in remembrance of my great-grandmothers.


I have always been puzzled why we sometimes refer to Santa Claus here in the United States as St. Nick.  What does a plump, jolly old man with a white beard, red velvet suit trimmed in white fur, and black boots who rides in a sleigh driven by 8 reindeer have to do with a patron saint?  Having been raised in the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, I had no idea what a particular patron saint stood for as our church generally referred to saints as a collective whole and did not pay homage to any one in particular.  Well it appears that our dear Santa Claus was inspired by the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which will occur tonight, December 5th, in The Netherlands.

Our jolly elf’s name is believed by many to have been derived from the old Dutch name, Sinter Klaas.  There is no direct translation, but “Sint” means saint and “Klas” or Klaase” means class or classroom. Hence the reference to the patron saint of children.  In fact, today’s Dutch Sinterklaas (formally known as Sint Nicolaas), although considered a non-secular figure, has his roots in Roman Catholism.  Saint Nicholas was a Greek bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (now modern day Turkey).  He is best known as the patron saint of children, in addition to the patron saint of sailors and Amsterdam.  So it is fitting that our beloved Santa Claus, who loves children, should be named after this saint.

There are some similarities between these two figures: both have long white beards, both of their attires are red and white, both love children and reward them for being good throughout the year, and in more modern times both arrive in town in November, being the main focus of a parade. However, the history and cultures of these two countries have shaped the rest of these two holiday icons quite differently.  Sinterklaas’s story has evolved from the middle ages, where its roots mired the real saint’s life, and has been changed by the influence of The Netherlands’ changing culture, and particularly its secular and non-secular history.  His attire, that of a bishop, dates back to pre-Protestant Reformation times, his arrival from Spain in a steamboat references back to the real Saint Nicholas (whose remains ended up in Bari, which at one time was part of the Spanish Empire; the arrival by steamboat is attributed to an 1800s writer, whose understandment likely refers to the patron saint of sailors), his sidekicks, “Zwarte Pieten”, derive from the Moorish occupation of Spain and also The Netherlands territories in Africa during its Golden Age, and Zwarte Pieten’s representation as bad and evil, likely shaped by the church’s belief that unacceptable behavior would not go unpunished.

Our American Santa Claus’s history is much shorter.  It is widely believed that he was introduced by the early Dutch settlers in New York and Pennsylvania during the 1600s. But the Santa Claus we know and revere today was largely shaped by the poem “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore written in 1823 and by cartoonists of the 19th century, particularly Thomas Nast. Our beloved Santa Claus has always been viewed as a strictly non-secular image of Christmas.

By the time my great-grandparents arrived in America in 1890, Santa Claus was as much a part of the Christmas spirit as its religious counterpart, the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  But the commercialization of Christmas around Santa Claus would have probably come much later, first with the invention of the radio and later the television.  So the Reyst and Smouter families likely carried on the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas on December 5th and 6th for a few years while their children were young.  Among the sparse belongings that they brought with them, I am sure there were pairs of wooden shoes that their four small children placed out on St. Nicholas Eve in hopes that they would be filled with candy  and small treats in the morning.  As a parent I know that I would have told my small children that Santa Claus would find them no matter where we lived in the world, so I am pretty confident that my grandparents and their siblings were also reassured that Sinterklaas would find them in their new homes in America.  In contrast to the celebration and gift-giving of Sinterklaas, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would have been observed strictly as a religious event, attending church and spending time with family.

As I child I was fascinated with how different cultures celebrated the holidays. As a mother I had the opportunity to relive that awe through my oldest child, Erin. Every December her third grade teacher would depart from the usual curriculum and dedicate part of each afternoon to student reports on a particular country’s holiday celebration. In addition to the required poster board presentation, which would be proudly displayed on the walls above their lockers outside their classroom door, the children were encouraged to use other visuals as they reported on their chosen country’s traditions. The children bought in traditional holiday decorations, including homemade crafts, and even bite-sized samples of foods traditionally served during those holiday celebrations.  Maybe this year, you can take your own children or grandchildren on their own adventure and explore how families elsewhere in the world are celebrating the holidays this year.