‘Sint Maarten,’ explains our nanny, ‘is like the Dutch Halloween.’ It has absolutely nothing to do with Halloween of course, instead, it celebrates Saint Martin, a man who took his sword to his cloak, slicing in half, so that he might share it, along with his bread with a cold and hungry beggar he met on the road.
During the day, children make lanterns and when the sun sets, they take their lanterns out onto the street and go from door to door, singing songs to their neighbors in exchange for treats. I didn’t love the idea of all of the treats, but I did love the idea of the festival. I wrote the date on the calendar and then of course, promptly forgot it.
‘I thought we could go away for the weekend for your birthday,’ I say to my husband. He doesn’t really care for birthdays, especially his own, and generally, prefers to be on a plane heading somewhere. For the last four years, he has managed to be on a plane, away from his family. I love birthdays, but his general disregard for them, along with his tendency to just buy whatever he wants, makes him incredibly difficult to buy for. So this year, I figured I’d come up with a winner. This year, I would take him away for his birthday. That way he would be on a plane, we would get to do something fun, and I’d actually get to celebrate his birthday with him. Which he would hate, but I would love. ‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.
‘I was thinking we could go to Bucharest,’ I continue, knowing that it was one place he had not been and really wanted to go to.
‘Too cold,’ he says, not looking up from his laptop where he is busily typing emails.
I close off all of the open tabs I have for hotels, restaurants and things to do.
‘Maybe we could go to that detox place Jeroen went to. In Spain.’ Jeroen is someone he works with, and he had come back after four days away raving about this retreat. My husband loves a retreat. Somewhere that feels luxurious where he can practice yoga, get daily massages and ideally fast and get colonics. Not exactly my idea of a good time.
‘Sure…’ I say, figuring I could opt out of the colonics and join him for the massages.
We settle on a place, book the accommodation, book the flights, and organize for our nanny to stay the weekend with the girls. Everything is set.
My husband’s birthday, it turns out, is the same day as Sint Maarten. By the time I realise everything is booked. It is too late. So I am in sunny Spain when my girls are making lanterns. I am singing happy birthday with the waitress who has just presented my husband with a candle-lit chocolate cake for his birthday when my girls join the neighborhood kids and sing the Sint Maarten songs to everyone who answers their door. I am not there to see my eldest’s face light up with delight at all the candy. I am not there when my youngest, decides she is tired and cold and wants to go home three houses in.
‘Look,’ I say, showing my husband the photos of the girls as they appear on WhatsApp.
‘Nice,’ he says, without a second thought.
‘Why?’ he asks, genuinely confused.
‘Because we’re missing it.’ I wanted to be part of that memory, part of that experience. It was the same way I’d felt when Mum had sent me the video of my eldest crawling for the first time. I had barely left her side for more than an hour since she had been born, and she chose the one afternoon Mum had sent me away to buy some clothes that would actually fit, to crawl. I felt sad and guilty and bad, as though I were committing a major parenting offense.
‘I don’t,’ he says, completely unfazed and unemotional. Sometimes I envy him that detachment. The complete freedom he feels to just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. If he was there to share it with them great, if he wasn’t, great.
Two days later, Sinterklaas arrives.
‘The girls are making pictures for Sinterklaas to put in their shoe for when Sinterklaas comes tonight,’ messages our nanny while we are waiting at the airport.
‘I thought Sinterklaas doesn’t come until the 5th December,’ I type back quickly, suddenly confused. ‘Everything I read said that the shoes were set out on the night of the 5th,’ I say to my husband, as though there were something he could do about it. He shrugs, still nonplussed.
‘Doesn’t this bother you at all?’
‘He arrives in the Netherlands today, but his birthday is the 5th December.’ Says the message from our nanny. ‘They get the big presents on the 5th.’
As we board our flight, my phone beeps. A photo of the girls’ shoes lined up neatly in front of the fireplace, scrolls of drawings tied with ribbon poking out of each shoe. Next to the shoes sit a block of chocolate for Sinterklaas and an apple and some water for his horse. It’s darling and I want to cry.
At home, I ditch my bag and race up the stairs to my secret present cupboard, the one I’ve been filling since September. Christmas thrills me and I select a necklace and bracelet, for each of the girls, some stickers, and new crayons. Then I sneak back down the stairs. I take a few bites out of the apple, eat several squares of chocolate, the same way my Mum did when I was young, and become part of an age-old tradition that keeps the magic of childhood alive.
I take the drawings out and unravel them. Avarose looks as though she’s picked up whichever crayon was nearest to her and scribbled about on the page. There is brown and blue and a little green. It looks like she became bored quickly. Grace meanwhile, has colored every inch of the page. There is pink and purple and blue and yellow around the border and a picture in the middle, Sinterklaas maybe, and possibly his horse, Amerigo. Maybe that’s what Avarose was drawing too. I replace them with the beaded necklaces and bracelets, some stickers and new crayons. Their favorite things at the moment. Then I tiptoe back down the stairs to bed, impatient for the morning.