There’s no Christmas Spirit

The city, famous for cheese in America, is pronounced gHOWda in Dutch. (It is their country; if they want to screw up the pronunciation, there’s nothing we can do about it.)
The train was so crowded that we couldn’t sit together. We were clearly sharing tradition with others. Darius struck up a conversation with his seatmate. I couldn’t hear everything, but I did catch snippets that wafted their way toward me. (“My sister really wants a cat for Christmas but my parents…” “Nobody in our family has any Christmas spirit this year.”)
We walked from the Gouda station to the city center, where we discovered we were a few hours early. We located a suitable restaurant on the square and ordered dinner. We discussed the attraction while we waited for our meals to arrive.
“So Nazy, what’s the big deal about the tree-lighting ceremony in Gouda?” I asked.
“That’s gHOWda, Dan. It says that the ceremony ‘should not be missed.’ Everyone comes to the town square to see the tree and to sing Christmas carols.”
“I said ‘Gouda,’ dear. Why does everyone come?”
“Yes, you said ‘Gouda.’ You should have said ‘gHOWda.’”
“What I said was, ‘Why do they come here?’ And that, my dear, remains the question.”
“It says that all the stores and houses turn off their lights and all the townsfolk put candles in their windows. Then the tree is lit and everyone sings carols.”
“Do they sing in English or Dutch?”
“Good cheer, Dan. Be of good cheer.”
I was trying to be cheerful, but I was cold and squished. I was hungry, too. We had been sitting at the table for an inordinately lengthy time. When it arrived, the food was cold and squished. Just as it was placed in front of us, all of the lights in the restaurant went out.
Darius jumped. “Hurry up, Dad! We’re gonna miss it. You’re gonna mess up the tradition. I’m going outside right now to see what’s happening. Why’d you pick this restaurant anyway? We should’ve just gone to McDonald’s.”
We wolfed down the meal, the better to disguise the taste, and dashed outside. Actually, we tried to dash outside. The town square was crowded. We joined hands, pushed a few tourists out of the way, and got elbowed by a few natives. We shoved our way to within sight of the tree.
The town square was quite picturesque. The square was dominated by a remarkable town hall. All the lights were turned off, and there were candles in every window. Had there been room to breathe, it would have been a bit better.
As usual, Darius was complaining. “I can’t see anything, Dad.”
“You’re not supposed to see anything. You’re supposed to listen. The mayor is talking now.”
Nazy interrupted. “Maybe he’s talking, Dan, but I wish he’d shut up and turn on the tree. I can’t understand a word he’s saying. Why does he insist on speaking Dutch?”
“Nazy, he’s speaking English.”
“Really? I can’t understand it. The crowd noise is drowning him out. What’s he talking about?”
“He’s thanking the Norwegian ambassador for the tree donation.”
“In English?”
Just then, the tree lights appeared. Everyone cheered. I lifted Melika over the crowd to see. We began to surge forward for a better look, and the crowd burst into song—in Dutch.
Darius was beside himself. There simply wasn’t enough room.
“What kind of a tradition is this, Dad? We sit on a crowded train, we stand in the freezing rain, we see Zwarte Pieten from Spain…”
“Darius! You’re real pain. Do not make a rhyme again.”
“Yeah, Dad. Well, what’s traditional about this?”
“It reminds me of a famous Christmas story. Remember the Grinch and ‘all the Whos down in Whoville’? We’re the Who Family.”
“We’re not the Who Family, we’re the crazy family.”
On the train ride back to The Hague, I sat with Melika and asked about her Christmas wish list.
“I just want one thing, Daddy. A real, live cat.”
“A cat? Uh…you have an allergy to cats, Melika.”
need a cat, Daddy. It won’t be Christmas without a cat.”
“A cat is a very complicated gift. What else would you like?”
“I don’t want anything else, just a cat.”
“Did you like the tree-lighting ceremony?”
“It was too crowded.”
“Just like your Waldo books, eh? Would you like a Waldo book for Christmas? What’s the name of the newest Waldo book?”
Where’s Waldo’s Cat?

We finally entered the holiday home stretch. Nazy was really worried—a week before Christmas and not a present was bought, and to the wish list, we had given not a thought. She was convinced we’d never get everything done. I wasn’t worried. All of Nazy’s concerns could be resolved by shopping and buying. With Nazy on my team, there was little doubt of success. So we hit the streets.
The final week went quickly, but not without another discussion with Darius.
“She wants a cat, Dad. If she doesn’t get a cat she’s going to cry.”
“That’s ridiculous. No one cries on Christmas. There are lots of things that she wants. Don’t worry.”
“Is she going to get a cat?”
“Darius, she’s allergic to cats. Mitra is allergic to cats. You’re allergic to cats. Mom is allergic to cats. Do you want to make the whole family sick?”
“We need a miracle. She really wants a cat.”
“Did Melika ask you to talk to me?”
And the feline discussions continued.

A miracle occurred before Christmas. Melika made the announcement. “Daddy! Mitra’s in the kitchen.”
“So what? That’s where we eat.”
cooking, Daddy.”
Cooking? Mitra? Are you sure?”
“Mitra’s in there cooking, Daddy. Do we have to eat it?”
“Eat what?”
“Whatever she’s making. Do we have to eat it?”
It was completely out of character for Mitra. Melika quickly collected Nazy and Darius, and we all tiptoed to the kitchen door and peered in. It was amazing. There she was, actually cooking. It wasn’t a complete miracle; she wasn’t cleaning.
“Do you want me to go in and find out what’s up, Dan?” Nazy whispered.
“Please. And see if she’s feeling okay.”
“I’m not eating anything Mitra cooks. You can’t make me,” warned Darius.
“Calm down. I don’t remember Mitra ever cooking anything. What are you worried about?”
“Remember the bread she made in Hanover, Dad? We had to borrow Chris Sachs’s chain saw.”
“You’re right. We’ll be careful.”
Nazy came back out. The rest of the family was huddled in the hall awaiting the news.
“She’s just in the Christmas spirit. She’s making cookies.”
“I’m not eating it, Dad.”
“That’s enough, Darius. Let’s listen to what your mother has to say. If she’s making cookies, why has she sliced all those tomatoes?”
“It’s a special recipe. I talked her out of using the grated turnips.”
not eating that stuff.”
The family was treated to Mitra-prepared culinary delights for the next several days. Cookies that were eaten with a spoon. Gingerbread pavement slabs. A disintegrating cake. The kitchen was a perpetual mess, but everybody bravely tried the wonders.

Christmas Eve finally arrived. Melika was despondent and abnormally quiet. She had had a long discussion with Nazy about cats. Nazy, on the other hand, was feeling good. Every necessary gift had been acquired.
We had a great dessert—real sugar cookies.
When we tried to pack the children off to bed later that evening, I caught Darius in the kitchen with a molar in his hand.
“Did Mitra make these cookies, Dad? Look what happened to my tooth.”
“Darius,” I replied, “that tooth was already loose.”
At that point, Mitra joined us. She wanted to know why Darius was trying to eat a Christmas tree decoration.
“It looked like a sugar cookie.”
“Well, it’s not. It’s a tree decoration. I baked it with the gingerbread.”
“Oh yeah? Then where’s the hole for the hook?”
“Darius you’re a… Daddy, do we have a drill?”
“We’ve got a drill,” I replied, “but I think we left the diamond bits back in Hanover.”

Melika and cat adjusted

The children finally trundled off to bed. Darius whispered a final warning about kittens.
Christmas morning was definitively Dutch—gray and drizzly. The children dashed downstairs. Mitra was overjoyed by the new clothes she received—a red sequin hat, a gold sequin purse, and sparkly silver shoes. She gave the Julia Child cookbook to Nazy. Darius quickly conquered his Kasparov chess computer (the first level) and moved on. Christmas dinner, prepared by Nazy, came sans salt. Mitra had disposed of that and any other useful condiments.

For Melika, Santa had left a note—something about a Persian kitten. The kitten, which was real and live, was bounding around the room knocking needles off the tree. Melika was overjoyed.
Darius snuck into the kitchen, grabbed one of Mitra’s gingerbread slabs, and crumbled it into the new cat food bowl. He was finally in the spirit.