EASTER AND PEA SOUP

The first holiday that my great-grandparents and their families would celebrate in their new homes was Easter as it fell on April 6th in 1890, just 3 weeks after they arrived in the United States from the Netherlands.  Easter celebration at the turn of the nineteenth century was primarily religious in nature here in the United States as well as in the Netherlands.  For the Dutch immigrants, the focus would have been on church and family, and encompassed more than just Easter Sunday. 

Easter week, sometimes referred to as Holy Week, would begin with morning church service on Palm Sunday and may have included a tradition from their homeland – the making of Easter palms, known as palmpaasje. These Easter palms, which were carried by the children, were sticks formed into the shape of a cross, that were decorated with ribbons, strings of dried fruit (usually oranges, currants or raisins, and figs) and baked dough figures in the shape of swans or cockerels (called palmpasenbrood). On the Thursday evening preceding Easter Sunday, known as Maundy Thursday here in the United States, the family would attend church service together and partake in holy communion in remembrance of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Most Protestant Reformed denominations held services on Thursday evening, in contrast to the Catholic churches which normally held special services on Good Friday afternoon. Since most businesses usually closed briefly on Good Friday, typically between 1PM and 3PM, so Christians could have time for reflection, my great-grandparents likely spent this time with family. Saturday would have been a busy day for my great-grandmothers preparing for Easter Sunday.  There was food shopping to be done, clothes to prepare for Sunday, eggs to decorate, and the baking of special Easter bread, Paasstol (a stollen bread stuffed with almond paste).

The climax of the week would be Easter Sunday (referred to as pasen – which is derived from the word pesach, the Hebrew name for Passover).  My grand uncles and aunts, then children, would have been delighted with the Easter morning treat of chocolate eggs and chocolate shaped bunnies, a rare treat.  The entire day for the families would have been dedicated to church and family.  In fact, Easter Sunday in the Dutch Reformed Church I grew up in was like a huge family reunion.  Even though on most Sunday mornings one would find nearly every row of pews at least partially occupied, on Easter Sunday the sanctuary would be literally filled to overflowing.  Every pew would be packed, and extra chairs were need in the overflow rooms next to the sanctuary to accommodate all who would attend that morning. Going to church on Easter morning was special compared to other Sunday mornings.  It was like a new beginning, and we all came dressed to prove it, despite our modest economic status, in our new spring Sunday best attire. 

After church, families would all gather at one relative’s home to enjoy dinner together and socialize for the remainder of the day.  For Easter dinner that first year in the United States, my great-grandmothers would probably have followed their Dutch tradition of serving lamb, which was considered symbolic of the death and resurrection of Jesus, instead of ham. But as years past the lamb would be replaced by ham, which was more readily available in the United States.  At the turn of the century, the United States was still primarily a farming nation, so pigs were usually slaughtered in the fall, cured over the winter months, and then ready for consumption in the spring, thus making ham the meat of choice for Easter Sunday dinner.

Although Easter falls in the early months of spring, the weather here in Michigan can be very unpredictable and it seems that Easter Sunday is often more cold and winter like than spring. The nights still remain quite cold even on those days when the sun shines and temperatures rise enough to discard our heavier winter coats.  So we still gravitate to our comfort foods for warmth to fend off the damp chill of Michigan’s spring.  One such food that my Dutch great-grandmothers would prepare that was a staple in their homeland was pea soup. If there was one thing that most Dutch immigrant women would salvage from their home in the Netherlands and bring to the United States if they could, it was a stock pot for making soups. I am not sure whether it was the Dutch or the German immigrants in Michigan that introduced this soup, but even today you will find it on many restaurant menus throughout the state during the winter months.

So once that Easter ham was stripped of most meat, the bone would be used by my great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mother to make one final pot of pea soup until winter returned later in the year.  As a child, I liked most vegetables, but never peas.  I detested the taste and texture of peas, especially canned peas which is all you could get in the winter months.  But a bowl of homemade pea soup…I could hardly wait for dinner.  This “stick to your ribs” kind of soup was considered a meal in itself in the Dutch household.  It was usually served with just cold cuts, cheeses, bread and crackers.

Since spring this year in Metro Detroit has seen mostly lower than average temperatures after having one early week of mid-summer like weather, I decided to take out that ham bone I threw in the freezer and indulge in one last pot of simmering pea soup on a cold and wet day in April in Michigan.  But unlike my grandfather, who wouldn’t eat his pea soup unless he actually saw the peas (my grandmother use to fool him and throw a handful of peas into the soup just before serving), I will make sure my pea soup is smooth and thick and doesn’t show a trace of those dreaded peas.

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THE DUTCH AND CARNIVAL

For a long time I thought all Dutch were Protestants.  That misconception was rooted in my own religious experience, living my entire life in Michigan, and my public school education as it related to world history.  I had little exposure to world history in school until high school, and even then the Netherlands was only mentioned briefly in regards to the German occupation during World War II, and the subsequent war crime trials held in The Hague.  As an avid reader, I gobbled up reading Anne Franks’ Diary on my own accord, and that probably was my first realization that not every Dutchman was Protestant. Somehow, the shelter of my own life as a Dutch descendent in Detroit, led me to believe that the entire homeland had been converted to the Dutch Reformed Church following the Reformation and spread of Calvinism.  This was further engrained living in Michigan, where almost all Dutch immigrants and their descendents were Protestant, belonging to one of 3 religious denominations: The Reformed Church of America (RCA), the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), and to a much lesser degree the Protestant Reformed.  All of these denominations stem from the RCA.  Other than my father’s older sister, who married a Catholic and raised her children in the Catholic faith, I had never met any other person of Dutch descent that was not Protestant.  Recently, I learned that there were some Dutch Catholic immigrants that settled in Detroit in the mid-1800s but their number was much smaller in comparison to the influx of Dutch emigrants of Protestant faith. Even my college experience, where I would learn about the Dutch masters and eventually spent three brief days touring Amsterdam did nothing to open my eyes to the diversity of religion in The Netherlands.

Then, as I began researching my family tree on my father’s Dutch ancestry side, my curiosity led me to learn more of the region of the Netherlands they emigrated from in the 1800s.  My misguided conceptions soon began to unravel, when I first learned that there are now more proclaimed Catholics than Protestants living in the homeland.  Next came the revelation that the once dominant Dutch Reformed Church, that was so instrumental in the decision of the first Dutch settlers in Michigan to leave their homeland, was no longer the state church, and in 2004 it actually merged with other Protestant denominations.  But there was more…my father’s paternal grandparents had lived in Noord-Brabant,  a province which was and still remains today predominately Catholic.  So it appears that the Reyst branch of my family tree may not have been Reformed Protestants for as long as I had originally imagined.  In fact my 4x great-grandfather is rumored to have been born around 1790 in the village of Holland, near Reusel-de Mierden, located in the very southern part of Noord-Brabant by the Belgium border.  It is reasonable to conclude that he may have been Catholic, and either he or his descendents converted to the Dutch Reformed Church after the family settled in Zevenbergen in the 1800s, which is located in the western part of the province, close to the predominately Protestant provinces of Zuid-Holland and Zeeland.  But even more enlightening…my great-grandmother, Helena de Reus, was born and lived until about 8 years old in Maastricht, Limburg, which has been predominately Catholic since 400 AD, and likely was raised Catholic.  Surprisingly, it is not inconceivable that at one time my ancestors may have participated in the pre-Lenten celebration known as Carnival.

Following the Reformation in the seventeenth century, the northern predominately Protestant provinces did away with Carnival.  Over time the festivities faded in the southern Catholic provinces, most likely do to pressure from the increasing influential Dutch Reformed Church.  However, following World War II, the tradition of Carnival was resurrected, mostly in the cities and towns throughout Noord-Brabant and Limburg, with Maastricht regarded as the top Carnival town.  The official start of Carnival in the Netherlands is November 11th (the 11th day of the 11th month) at precisely 11 minutes past 11 (called the “day of fools”) when the Council of Eleven names the Prince of Carnival.  Note the significance of the number 11. Thus begins the months of preparations by each municipality.  Festivities usually begin on the Sunday (sometimes Friday) before Ash Wednesday. There are parades dotted with floats containing large papier-mache figures, people dressed in bizarre costumes, some wearing painted faces or masks, music (sometimes with quite obscene lyrics), plenty of food, and lots of alcohol. This madness continues until the end of Shrove Tuesday, midnight marks the beginning of Ash Wednesday.  During the Dutch Carnival, some towns in Noord-Brabant, even change their name, like Den Bosch; it is known as “Oeteldonk” or “Frog Hill” during the days of Carnival. 

Like other Catholics around the world, Carnival is a time to indulge on those things that are given up during the 6 weeks of Lent, rich food being one of those forbidden items.  It was common for the Dutch to use almonds in lots of recipes during the Lenten fasting period leading up to Easter.  Traditionally animal foods were forbidden and almond milk was substituted for cow’s milk.  A popular cookie during the Lent was Bitterkoekjes (Bitter Cookies).  The name stems from the use of bitter almonds; today they are usually made with bitter almond oil.

Each day I learn how different the Dutch are from my childhood preconceptions.  There is more to the Dutch then the very private, conservative, hard-working relatives and other church members that I knew growing up.

RINGING IN THE NEW YEAR

As I listened to the horns blare and the gunshots pop (which our local police force adamantly discourages) at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I wondered why we often refer to this annual celebration as the “ringing in of the new year”.  I don’t recall hearing any bells ringing last night.  Apparently, the saying refers to an old custom, particularly in England, where the church bells would ring at midnight as a means of ringing out the old year, celebrating its passing, and to ring in the new year joyfully.  This ringing of the bells was immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his poem “Ring Out, Wild Bells”.

All around the world, people celebrated the ringing in of the new year, 2012, in various ways last night.  Early in the day, I watched the broadcast from Sydney, Australia as the fireworks lit up the night sky.  Here in the United States the main focus every year is on Times Square in New York City where some one million people crowd to watch the famous ball drop to signify the official start of the new year.  Even here is Metropolitan Detroit, a new custom started last year with the dropping of the big “D”, a symbol identified closely with Detroit (especially the town’s major league baseball team, the Tigers). 

For those up to celebrating, there are big parties with bands, noise makers, balloons, and champagne or maybe just a quiet night with close family and friends.  The night usually includes special foods, drinks and treats depending on where you live to help bring in that new year.  One last splurge before we make those new year resolutions, which usually includes a vow to lose weight by exercising more and eating healthier.  My Dutch ancestors also had a special tradition for welcoming in the new year.  On New Year’s Eve,  a special treat, Oliebollen, was made.  Despite efforts to limit the highly fattening sweets in the Dutch diet, this pastry is still popular among the Dutch even today.

Oliebollen (which means oil balls) is often referred to as Dutch Donuts.  Historians generally credit the Dutch settlers in the Hudson Valley region with the introduction of the first known doughnut recipes in the United States.  In fact, in the Hudson Valley in New York State, a doughnut is sometimes called an “olicook”, derived from the Dutch word oliekoeke (oil cake). A traditional oliebol is made with raisins and currants, and sometimes includes chopped apples.  The dough is then dropped by spoonsful into hot oil where it is fried until golden brown, then rolled in powdered sugar while still warm.  They are believed to symbolize a sweet and everlasting life. 

So what ever your traditions may be for celebrating the passing of the old year and the hopes for a new year, may they bring you joy, hope, good health and prosperity for 2012.

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar! (Happy New Year!)

TIME FOR THANKSGIVING

As we hopefully spend time with family, friends, and other loved ones today, I just want to say to all my followers “Gelukkige Dankviering”, which translate from Dutch as “Happy Celebration of Thanks”.  May you have many reasons to give thanks this holiday season.

WHAT’S IN A NAME

When it came time to choose a name for our anticipated new family member, we purchased one of those popular baby naming books without a thought to any family names. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, we jotted down several names that appealed to us, either because it was unique, sounded good with our surname, or seemed to lend itself to character. For a boy, a passing thought was given to naming him after my husband, but was quickly dismissed in favor of other choices.

Unlike our parents who chose to honor a special relative as our middle given names, we had no intention of following suit. Our generation’s goal seemed intent on making sure our children were unique.

But for my father and his siblings, as his parents before him, a name was not just name as much as a tradition. The Dutch have long named their offspring after other family members – grandparents, aunts and uncles. Therefore, given names were passed down for generations. This chain was broken as our emigrant families assimilated more into their new culture in Detroit, and particularly after their offspring married non-Dutch descendants.  A few names have survived the times even here in America (although now Americanized with English spellings), but most have been overlooked for names more popular during the decade of the time of birth.  Maybe if we had known more about our own family’s history, the names Neil (Cornelis), Helen (Helena), Nellie (Neeltje), Lena (Lijntje), Adriana (Adrianntje), Mamie (Maaike) and Arie may have still existed in our family trees today, not just the Johns (Johannes & Jan), Peters (Pieter), and Henrys (Hendrik). 

It is believed that the habit of the Dutch of naming newborns after another family member originated out of superstition that the name in some way contributed to some form of reincarnation of the person the child was named after, who was usually much older.  Over time the superstition disappeared, but by the early Modern Age (1500s to 1800s), the practice had become so standard that the names of the children were practically known at the marriage of their parents.  The pattern of naming children usually was:

  1. The first son was named after the paternal grandfather.  The first daughter was named after the maternal grandmother.
  2. The second child’s name depended on whether the first-born child was a boy or girl.  If the first-born child had been a boy, then the second child would be named after its mother’s family, and after its father’s family if the first-born had been a girl.
  3. The third and fourth-born children would usually be named after the grandparents who did not yet have a grandchild named after them.
  4. If the grandparents already had grandchildren named after them, the children would be named after their uncles and aunts, starting with the father’s family.
  5. If a child died, the next born child would receive the same name.

While researching my father’s family tree, I noticed these naming patterns were still closely followed in the 1800s, especially the last one.  My great-grandfather Smouter was not the first son named Arie, a sibling with the same name had died in infancy 3 years prior, and Arie Smouter’s own second born daughter, Lijntje, would die as an infant, only to have the third born child then given the same name. To confuse matters even more, siblings would each choose to name their offspring after the same relatives.  I discovered that my great-grandfather, John Reyst, and his brothers each had offsprings named Cornelius and Henry, and my grandfather, Cornelius Reyst, and great-uncle, Peter Reyst, would both name their daughters, Helen, just 2 years apart.

Unlike our modern naming practice that consists usually of a first and middle name, a Dutch child may have only one given name (as my grandfather who has no middle name) or up to five given names. I have not seen five in my family tree on both the paternal and maternal sides, but there are several with 3 given names. But the pattern is inconsistent within a family.  One child may have no middle name, another 2 given names, and still another with 3.

Also, Dutch names are gender specific.  So if the grandparent (as in our lineage) was Cornelis, a son would have been named Cornelis and a daughter Cornelia.  Other examples of this naming method in our lineage were the names Jacob (Jacobus and Jacoba) and Peter (Pieter and Pieternella).

As to my father’s unusual given name, Arie, I discovered it has been a family name for generations.  I was able to trace it back to 1731.  It was a family name rooted in both sides of his maternal grandfather, Arie Smouter (from Arie’s father, Bastiaan Smouter, and his mother, Neeltje Klootwijk). His middle name Russell, however, has no history within his Dutch lineage on either his father’s or mother’s side, and demonstrates the transition of my ancestors to life in America. 

With the onset of World War I, many Dutch emigrants moved more and more away from their homeland traditions when naming their offspring to distance themselves from their Germanic roots. An example is my father’s younger sister who was named Geraldine, the first in our immediate family to not be named after an older relative.

So maybe with this new-found information on our family roots, some generation old names may one day reappear in honor of those long past.

THE REYST SURNAME

When I first starting researching my father’s family I hit a blank wall.  I had even tried searching the name in the Dutch online database, Genlias, without success. Then through searches on Google and Ancestry, I verified my suspicion that our family surname had been changed to Reyst once my great-grandfather and his family arrived in the United States.

Our real Dutch family surname is Reijst, and generations before my great-grandfather it was Rijst.  A quick study of the Dutch alphabet revealed that although “y” does exist in the Dutch language it is seldom used as a vowel, and was not even used in older records. Instead the digraph (a pair of characters written to represent one sound) “ij” is considered a single letter in the Dutch language and represents the sixth vowel.  Often writers failed to dot the i and j, so written in cursive it looked like a “y”.  This explains why on the Obdam manifest, the surname appears to be Reyst, whereas the first US Census record of 1900 that my great-grandfather participated in lists his surname as Reijst.  Between 1890 and 1900, my great-grandfather used both variations of the surname, but thereafter the family’s surname was identified as Reyst.

So why the change in spelling?  It likely has a lot to do with where my great-grandparents chose to settle down once arriving in the United States.  Many Dutch immigrants settled in Michigan from 1840 to 1900, especially on the western side of the state around Grand Rapids.  Many of the Dutch Protestant families continued to cling to their native traditions, and most surnames found in city directories of these western Michigan towns and cities resemble those in their native provinces of the Netherlands.  Most familiar is Frederik Meijer, the founder of the grocery business that has now grown into a major superstore chain that still bears his name.  But my great-grandfather, Johannes Reijst, decided to migrate to the growing metropolis of Detroit, Michigan, which was quickly becoming an important emerging industrial center of the Midwest.  Detroit was growing from an influx of people from various origins and cultures, from southern United States and both Eastern and Western European countries, and economic opportunities were likely greater for those who assimilated into this new culture.  So either by design or by accident due to misinterpretation, the “ij” in Johannes’ surname was replaced with a “y”.  The family even took this assimilation into American culture a step further by converting their given names to more familiar Americanized names.  So Johannes became known as John and Helena as Lena; even the family given name of Cornelis, now would be written as Cornelius.

The Reyst (or Reijst or Rijst) surname probably dates back to no later than 1811.  Prior to 1811 very few Dutch families had surnames, except nobility.  But in 1811 under Napoleonic rule of the Netherlands, all families were required to register and choose a surname.  Among the rural population of the Netherlands the use of patronymics was common practice before 1811 to identify an individual, with the oldest form using the possessive of the father’s name along with the word for son or daughter. Other forms used a person’s occupation, place of residence, or personal characteristic. So many patronymics became permanent surnames, like Jansen (son of Jan), Visser (the fisherman), Van Dijk (one living along the dike), and Reus (nickname for big man).  So what does the name Rijst or Reijst represent?  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any citation that gives the meaning of either of these spellings.  But I have found out that the Dutch word “rijst” means rice (as a noun) or to lift, mount or heave (as a verb).  So it is possible that the chosen surname may have referred to being someone who does manual labor as I don’t think it referred to growing or processing of rice.  Also the Dutch word for the Rhine River is “rijn”, so maybe the surname has some connection to living along the Rhine.

Today in the United States individuals with the surname of Reyst are mostly located throughout Michigan.  However, you will also find some possible relatives in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

DREAM TO CRUISE

Today’s Woodward Dream Cruise, the antique car and hot rod cruise down Woodward Avenue from Wide Track Circle in Pontiac to 8 Mile Road at the edge of Detroit which draws car collectors from across the United States and Canada, triggered old memories of my dad.  So I hope you don’t mind my brief diversion today. 

Harry's 1957 Chevy Bel Air

In the last few years of his life, my dad, Arie “Harry” Reyst, started buying 1950 cars, I think they were all Chevys, and fixing them up in his spare time.  I particularly remember 2 such cars, a white Chevy and a red Chevy convertible (which he still owned at his death).  The white Chevy, which was probably a 1955 or 1956 model, he gutted under the hood completely and rebuilt it, replacing bad parts and even spray painting parts so they appeared new.  I remember Dad hanging the parts from my mom’s backyard clothesline at our house on Eastburn Avenue. Harry sold this one and later purchased the 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible, which my sister, Kathleen, had to drive if she wanted to borrow a family car.

Some of those Sunday afternoon family drives were taken in these cars.  So I know if my dad still had been alive in 1995 when the first dream cruise was organized, he would have been right there cruising one of his beauties with all those youngsters, beaming his big smile. Riding in dad’s old cars, you felt special; there was this sense of pride and joy, and in my dad’s case love.  So I can relate to those thousands (they say some 30,000 collector, custom, muscle, street hot rods, and special interest cars will cruise Woodward Avenue today) of owners who have come out today to cruise on by the million plus spectators along the route. I have often wondered if some car buff discovered that red ’57 Chevy on the dealer’s used car lot after it was traded in for a new car around 1966.  Maybe it was spared the junk yard and can be seen cruising along in one of the many car cruises, in addition to the Woodward cruise, held throughout Metropolitan Detroit area every summer.