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Nativity at Night by Dutch painter Geertgen tot Sint Jans, ca. 1490. National Gallery, London.

Growing up in the Netherlands, my sister and I did not expect gifts at Christmas, and certainly not under the tree. We had already received our gifts on the eve of St. Nicholas, December 5. At the dinner with relatives on Christmas Day, we would maybe receive one book, or a small piece of jewelry. It would be well coordinated between mother and grandmother that this would amount to only one present per person, and it would be next to our plate when we arrived at the extremely well-dressed Christmas dinner table.

However Christmas Morning was something we immensely looked forward to. The Christmas Morning breakfast was the most wonderful breakfast of the year, even better than the Easter breakfast. We would have crispy rolls from the oven, artisan sliced ham, boiled eggs, cheese, jams, and of course the sweet breakfast sprinkles American kids can’t believe Dutch kids get to eat for breakfast. And Kerststol, or Christmas Stollen, a fruit bread with an almond paste filling.

There was an unwritten rule that my parents would set out the breakfast (including my father carving a bell or Christmas tree out of the butter) and us kids would stay in bed until my mom would sound the special alarm. And the special alarm was: Harnoncourt’s recording of the opening chorus of Part One of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at full volume, the sound of the timpani rocking the whole house. Whether you listen to Harnoncourt’s recording or Herreweghe’s recording (which nowadays sounds in my house on Christmas Morning), if you want to reproduce my childhood experience, make sure someone turns it off after the first cantata is over. Under no circumstances would my mom play the second cantata on Christmas Day.

Read more about the history of Christmas in Europe and the USA in this extremely interesting article and join me again tomorrow for a cantata for Second Christmas Day.

Wieneke Gorter, December 24, 2016