On Christmas Day we awoke in Amsterdam to a darkness as deep as night. The sun didn't rise until nearly nine o'clock, so the children slept and slept.
"Mom, I miss Santa Claus," frowned The Scientist, as he shuffled into the living area and ascertained with a swift glance under our impromptu tree that there had been no surprise visitation by the special ancient holiday elf to our Dutch AirBNB.
"Yes, that's completely understandable. I feel the same way. We didn't know when we booked this trip that Sinterklaas comes to Holland on December 5th. How ironic that he returned to Spain for Christmas! Sweetheart, I truly believe you'll have presents waiting for you when we get home from this Christmas trip."
"I know," he nodded. "It's just a little sad."
The Scientist had actually been the first to tell us that Santa Claus would not be coming to bring us gifts in Holland.
He's made a close half-Dutch friend who I'll call Sanne for the purpose of this blog. Sanne is a sixth grade girl whose mother is Dutch and father is Catalan and, like The Scientist, she is also new at school this year.
Sanne and The Scientist have bonded, so when he told her excitedly that we would be going to visit her native Amsterdam for Christmas, she was delighted but also swiftly informed him that Sinterklaas had already visited Holland earlier in the month.
The Scientist reported this to us at home so we looked it up together and learned that 'sinterklaasavond' (Santa Claus evening) or 'pakjesavond' (evening of the presents) had indeed already taken place in Amsterdam.
"We missed it!" fretted Little Angel.
So, we made sure to send our letters to Santa this year using our Barcelona address and specifying that we now live in Spain. The Aventura children wanted to make absolutely sure that Santa would know to bring any presents to them in Barcelona!
"Even if he brings coal, Mom," announced Soccer Dude. "I just want to be sure he knows where we are."
Before we left our apartment in Barcelona for Amsterdam, each child laid their stocking out carefully.
They also performed the ritual (and somewhat hysterical) practice of whacking our family's Cagatio (wooden Christmas log) to make it 'poop' candy on Christmas Eve while we were traveling. This is such a Catalan thing... they have a real obsession with poop in Catalunya! For almost three weeks our children fed the family Cagatio every night before bedtime.
Little Angel in particular was vigilant about making sure our Cagatio had enough crackers, cookies and orange slices! She also carefully covered it with a blanket to keep it warm. Cutie.
The last thing the kids did before heading out to the train station was give the Cagatio a good smacking and sing their version of the Catalan chant requesting gifts.
All this to explain that waking up on Christmas morning in Amsterdam... so dark and chilly... without our beloved extended family to celebrate with and no presents from Santa... felt a bit lackluster to the Aventura children. There were none of the usual overflowing stockings filled with candies and little gifts... just our sweet little green pine tree.
Señor Aventura and I read to the kids from the Nativity story and we discussed the true meaning of Christmas together as a family for a while.
"I do know that Christmas isn't about presents," nodded The Scientist after we'd finished reading and discussing the Nativity story. "I just miss our family traditions. Opening the stockings on Christmas morning. Breakfast and dinner parties with our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins... playing all day long and eating yummy food until my stomach hurts. It just doesn't quite FEEL like Christmas."
"We will have to make our own Christmas feel special this year!" we decided over breakfast pancakes.
"I wish we had decorations for the tree, Mommy," sighed Little Angel.
"Why don't you make some?" I suggested.
"That's actually a good idea!" pronounced Soccer Dude. "I can make decorations for the tree out of origami paper."
"I want to do that too!" exclaimed his little sister.
Soccer Dude and Little Angel spent the next two or three hours folding and cutting origami paper in different colors and patterns to make homemade decorations for their special Christmas tree. Their decorations were adorable.
We have a holiday tradition of naming our Christmas trees after characters from "The Peanuts Gang" cartoons by Charles Schulz... for example in the past we've had trees named Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy. This year we decided to name our tree "Lucy", to honor both our tradition and a special family member. The children spent hours decorating Lucy with hearts, stars and butterflies along with interesting origami ornaments.
After a little while, The Scientist and Señor Aventura decided to venture out into the cold day to explore the Vondelpark and find out when the ice skating rink might reopen for the week. I busied myself in the kitchen listening to Christmas carols sung by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby while assembling our holiday meal, which we'd agreed to eat in the late afternoon.
There's nothing like the aroma of rosemary, thyme, wine and roasting potatoes to fill a house with festivity. Pretty soon the children were singing along to the carols and excitedly showing me their decorations. Soccer Dude decided to translate the recipe for Dutch apple tart from Dutch into English to try to make a special dessert.
"I want to help too!" sang out Little Angel.
Señor Aventura and The Scientist returned with some pastries, stories of the empty city and photos of the park on Christmas.
My husband rolled up his sleeves and whipped up a delicious batch of roasted mustard-coated Brussels sprouts, and at last we sat down to count our blessings and appreciate a festive holiday meal together.
"I love Christmas, mommy!" said Little Angel. "I love Amsterdam!"
After dinner we spent an hour calling and video-calling our close family in California and New York, and it was lovely to see their friendly faces across the hours and miles. We loved hearing their voices and learning about what they were up to for Christmas. By the end of the final call we felt delighted and reconnected.
The most exciting telephone call was yet to come.
Soccer Dude had waited all day to share a special Christmas call with his best friend Mini-Muller in San Diego. It had been planned for a week and he'd been asking me about once an hour how soon we could call his bestie.
"I got a pretty great gift for Christmas this year," Mini-Muller told Soccer Dude casually as they began to talk.
"Here, let me show you..."
He then pulled out an airplane ticket from San Diego to Barcelona and showed it to Soccer Dude over the video call!
"Oh my gosh. OH MY GOSH!!! MOM! MOMMMMMM!!!!"
I came in to find out what the commotion was all about.
"MOM! MINI-MULLER IS COMING TO BARCELONA! HE IS COMING TO VISIT US!!!! HE IS COMING!!!!"
Soccer Dude looked like he might explode with excitement and pure joy.
Seeing him so happy filled my eyes with tears. It had been a long while since we'd seen Soccer Dude this full of sheer delight.
Of course, I'd planned this surprise along with Mini-Muller's amazing mother who is an incredibly dear friend to all of our family. To my own joy, she will be coming with Mini-Muller for a week to visit us in late March. Their visit isn't just Mini-Muller's phenomenal Christmas present... it's truly a gift to us too, and we can't wait to host them!
"I'll finally be able to join you to go to watch FC Barcelona play in person!" beamed Mini-Muller as he continued to chat with Soccer Dude.
No two nine year old boys could have been more elated. Soccer Dude and Mini-Muller spent the rest of their video chat talking about all of the huge fun and adventures they would have together.
"I've been saving up my euro," Soccer Dude confided. "I've been doing a lot of chores for my parents. So now I will be able to take you to do really cool things in Barcelona!"
"That's great! I've been saving up too!"
Soccer Dude's dad and I exhanged warm smiles as we listened to our little man bubbling with enthusiasm. Christmas felt truly special now... it had made our middle child's very dearest dream come true!
Our little man spent the rest of the day singing, shaking his bootie and dancing around the house.
"Daddy," said Little Angel after that video call ended. "Can we play a game? All of us?"
"Absolutely," nodded Señor Aventura. "What should we play? We didn't bring any board games."
"How about charades?" I suggested.
We spent the next twenty minutes writing down topics including song lyrics, child-friendly movies, animals, sports and more... and then a hilarious hour or so performing them for each other. What could be better than watching Señor Aventura crawl around the rug as a wild boar, or enjoying my unforgettable dance performance to the tune of "Don't Let Me Down"? Ha! The children laughed at us like crazy. We only spilled one glass of white wine in the process (oops, no biggie!) haha.
We followed charades up with dessert, more dessert, and a family viewing of the wonderful 1947 holiday classic "Miracle on 34th Street" starring Maureen O'Hara and Natalie Wood, a movie which the children surprised themselves by absolutely loving despite its relative age and black-and-white photography.
With the five of us curled up on the couch together after a relaxed day full of food and family it truly felt like the best Christmas we could have hoped for! While everyone truly hoped Santa had visited our apartment in Barcelona... it turned out that in the end toys and parties weren't necessary to make Christmas Day truly joyful and beautiful.
Sometimes a paper heart made with love is the best present you could ever want.
The Familia Aventura fell asleep happily; grateful for our many blessings. Full of laughter, hugs, delicious treats and exciting plans for Boxing Day in Amsterdam!