first St Nicholas, then Mr Christmas and then huge explosions on the New Year…

St Nick first turned up in the kindergarten and Daniël was thrilled by the sweets and presents. They made much more of an impression on our little pragmatist/opportunist than people in funny hats.

Matthijs on the other hand is old enough to anticipate the event and use his imagination on it. Along with all his classmates he reached a very high state of excitement as the day approached. Seeing this we are determined to make sure that we plan in lots of relaxation and distraction next year to reduce the madness somewhat, particularly as two exited little boys working each up into a frenzy is equivalent to at least twelve monkeys on strong espresso.

St Nicholas night itself was short but sweet. Though he could not turn up himself, one of his Black Peters dropped a hefty sack by the front door. No huge presents, because the kiddos are already spoiled rotten and have more toys that you can shake a stick at, but lots of books and puzzles and the traditional chocolate letters (which Matthijs can now recognise). They were eventuallydropped into their bath with chocolate letters firmly clutched in one hand but both declared that they had had enough and would save the rest for tomorrow. Marjolein was pleased, but absolutely dumbfounded at this restrained behaviour and suspects them of not being children at all, but aliens. Nothing new there… Still it is good that they eat from appetite and not from habit or reflex.

Matthijs had dived into our “Starting Reading” and “Starting Maths” software and is making great strides. School had prompted him to be more interested in reading and writing and he is very keen on his “exercise books” which we and his grandmother bought: lots of fun puzzles and mazes that just happen to teach fine motor control and forming lines and lettershapes. He is also very fond of drawing and creates ever more elaborate pictures.

This year we decided to send one of his pictures as our Christmas card. He carefully and accurately wrote his name underneath and was so immensely proud of it that he slept with a very crumpled Christmas card clutched in his arms every day for a week.

Daniël continues to amaze. He has fabulous mouse-control and is superb at pattern-matching, shapes and puzzles: very nearly as good as Matthijs. He had moved off the easy toddler software and is currently hacking his way systematically through a hefty “101 puzzles” CDROM that is supposed to top out at four years old… He is also a keen artist. One of the guaranteed ways of getting some peace and quiet in our house is to settle the monsters down with plenty of paper and felt-tips. In the picture you can see that he has a mature pen-hold and is busy creating one of his “monster flowers”: he started drawing flowers (petals and everything) shortly after Matthijs’ early “flower period” and now adds eyes, spotty noses, fat feet and mouths full of teeth. I cannot wait to see what the child psychologists say about that…

Daniël goes to the toilet regularly but still somewhat randomly. Sometimes he entirely fills a nappy and then lies his head off about it, despite the fact he is waddling around like a penguin. He does know that he needs to go, because he does regularly declare that he is going to do a poop (shouts of “sueeeti taiym” work it out, we bribe him) and does indeed do so, much to Matthijs’ satifaction as he shares in the bounty.

Father Christmas somewhat confused Daniël: yet another man in red. He therefore started (because of the floppy hat) enthusiastically greeting all the Father Chrismi (plural) as “Plop the Gnome” (yes it is just as bad in Dutch) from his favourite television program. Matthijs just lumped them together as “Christmasguys”.

The school, with typical Dutch pragmatism also celebrated Christmas: Daniël had a nice party in the kindergarten with candles, songs and lots of things to eat. Matthijs got a evening Christmas dinner with a musical remorselessly performed outside in sub-zero temperatures by the teaching staff. Some of the less hardy parents snuk off inside to recover from the frostbite and possibly from the singing. After that the children went to their classrooms and dined off lots of nice things prepared by the parents, while we slunk off to another room and downed quantities of mulled wine. Excellent stuff when your ears are just about to shatter. Marjolein had contributed a delicious but somewhat healthy-looking fruit salad to the kiddo-food which was utterly spurned by the little toads as greasy meatballs and chocolate-chip biscuits were also on offer. We ate fruit salad for days….

It was a good party and we got to know some of the other victims, sorry parents. Matthijs was dressed up to the nines in grey suit and waistcoat, red turtle-neck and glittery bow-tie. He was as proud as a peacock and kept his clothes very clean: quite an achievement under the circumstances.

He has a whale of time at school and is building up quite a social life. It is very much the “done thing” to make play-dates at each other’s houses and we have often been suddenly introduced to “the father/mother of X” and expected to start negociating. It still stuns me that a four-year-old can be “booked up” for days in advance… Because of the parent-swapping we have discovered that quite a lot of Matthijs’ classmates live close to us, so he will be able to walk and bicycle to them when he is a bit older. He is pretty good on his bicycle: after he dumped the training wheels he never looked back. It looks like he will be able to bike next to us to school when the good weather returns and Falco can sit on a bike-seat.

The second half of the month was rough: I came down with a mystery super-flu that floored me for almost three weeks. I spent lots of time in bed, sleeping and sleeping and sleeping. I did manage to do some stuff with the kids (drop them at school, walk the dog) but it always emptied my batteries and I then needed to drop back into bed. This was tough on Marjolein as she was still recovering her strength after the pregnancy and she suddenly had to take over the evenings, Fridays and weekends, when I generally do the kiddo-whacking. Just as I was getting better my appointment to have a busted wisdom tooth extracted (I am now completely without wisdom) turned up on the 23rd and I spent another week as Mr Useless with a cheek like a basketball and a permanent high from the pain-killers. Fortunately Marjolein’s sister had invited us over for Christmas dinner (with easy-chew food) so we did not have to work much. They made us a very nice meal and we responded by providing an exotic British trifle for dessert.

On “Second Christmas Day” (Dutch Boxing Day) we made ourselves turkey, chestnuts and sprouts and roast potatoes, which was a big hit with the beasts. Matthijs helped to peel the chestnuts but I am never going to buy fresh chestnuts again: my fingernails were worn down to the nub. Next year I shall open some nice canned ones with lots of preservatives and colour.

The boys provided table decorations: Daniel had made a very nice center-piece in school with pine twigs and silver paper and Matthijs contributed the candles. The school took him on a trip to a candlemaker and he got to dip his own candles in all different colours of wax. After that it was more (small) prezzos under the tree. There were even a couple for mama and papa!

We finished the month with the funeral of one of Marjoleins’ aunts. Not a close relationship but it was important to make an appearance. After some debate we took the boys along as an important experience and because we regard children (even ours) as a hopeful and positive part of all the big moments: birth, marriage and death. Naturally Marjolein prepared them carefully with talks and a book (yes there is a VERY NICE childrens book about burying your relatives). Daniël does not understand much of it, but Matthijs is working things out about death and loss and grief. We will see what they retain. It was also Falco’s first exposure to his maternal aunts etc. so he was very much feted and cooed-over. To their great credit both Matthijs and Daniël behaved wonderfly well. They were quiet, polite and respectful: real little gentlemen. We were and are tremendously proud of them.

The end of the year, as always in the Netherlands, was fireworks, “oil-balls” (Dutch doughnuts, no hole, instant cholesterol poisoning) and champagne. Marjolein’s parents came over and we watched various comedians summing up the year and waited for midnight. We woke the boys half an hour before midnight so they could see the fireworks and would not be woken up and terrified by them. They came down and demolished doughnuts and drank kiddo champagne at midnight. Matthijs was much braver than last year but did not like the noise of the fireworks much (it was VERY loud). Daniël was less bothered and they both trundled around outside briefly with sparklers in their fists before scampering back inside. I must admit, they have a point. Dutch people go completely nuts on New Year and it always resembles very jolly and colourful total war. I once saw a BBC war report from the top of a skyscraper in Bagdad when it was was being heavily bombed: Dutch New Year is like that but not as calm and restful. Muggins here had bought some ickle-pritty kiddo fireworks and couple of simple rockets all of which were UTTERLY submerged by the massive artillery being fired off around our square. It is much easier and cheaper to just sit back and enjoy what the neighbours are doing…

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