The decorations have remained unpacked in their boxes; and the branch that stands in for a Christmas tree, collected at a park after the wind has blown it down never appeared. Unlike the years before, there has been little demand for it from my ten-year old boys.
Satiated by the recent advent of Sinterklaas, their energies more recently have been directed towards collecting food after they came home with a note from school. In big letter type, it said ‘Food bank Amsterdam’ and below it in a smaller one – ‘the link between surplus and shortage’. There are line drawings of bread, milk and onions on one side and on the other, images of boxes being carried and loaded onto a truck. The note went onto describe that people who go hungry in Amsterdam are fed by the Food bank and the school, like other schools would be taking part, through the kids in a collection effort.
My boys tend to talk about the action they have undertaken quite a lot – sharing information, enthusing the children of neighbours to join in the collection, and afterwards recounting who said what and gave what. They are also in a competition with other kids abut the volume of the collections. Adults are not welcome on these trips. One elderly neighbour met me on the side-walk and suggested we, as parents should make sure they carry that note around from school, just in case anyone should have any doubts as to why they are collecting food.
They themselves have no doubts at all. They tell us there are enough people in the Netherlands, and amongst them several children, who don’t have enough to eat. I have not idea how they got so impassioned by this fact. They seem genuinely moved to act and therefore the multiple trips to different buildings with bags and their story. Only to come home laden.
My children have seen kids sometimes younger themselves beg or serve others on the streets of India. Recently, they have started to tell us of kids who go hungry in the Netherlands.
Charity, they seem to feel, begins at home.
The one who made me most aware of this when I was a child was, co-incientally, my Dutch aunt. She met and married my uncle in Los Angeles when they were students and came to live with us in India in the late sixties. Before she came, Christmas came and went without much impact. True our ayah (nanny) went to Church and took us along, and there, we were introduced to the mysterious world of candles and songs in Tamil – a language we only heard from her lips. I remember the feeling of jealousy that crept over me when she tasted the body and blood of Christ and we were not allowed to.
But the entry of Sonja aunty in our lives meant that Christmas flowered into a host of rituals and celebrations, more numerous and in greater variety than any festival we had ever known. In fact, it outshone Diwali, the festival of lights that was the jewel in our crown until then.
One of those rituals consisted of giving presents, wrapped in seductive colours to our servants. Every one of them and there were several – gardeners, watchmen, sweepers, ayahs, drivers, cooks, bearers, stable boys – got a package of Christmas gifts. They consisted of food, clothes and or alcoholic drinks. The people who received these were – what should I say – happy? Nobody had ever thought of them in this way – as people deserving of ‘presents’. Maybe they were puzzled happy. Honestly, I don’t know.
It took my Sonja aunty who arrived by ship to the Netherlands some time in the 1940’s and went to America in another boat, and then to South India to introduce me to what occupies my children these days – that charity begins at home.