It was Christmas Eve, 2017, last night, and the three of us attended our family's annual evening together which included lots of food and a visit from Santa Claus himself. It brought many memories to mind.
Dorothy, Esther, and I love Christmas and have many, many memories of South Texas holiday celebrations with our mom and dad, aunts, uncles, a myriad of cousins, close family friends, and of course, each other. Our father’s Minten/Siemonsma Dutch heritage was dominant in our family, and for that reason many of our childhood memories of Christmas revolve around customs that our grandparents brought with them from the Netherlands.
I thought our mom was Dutch, even though I realized later on that she had her own heritage! Her sister, Ruth, and her family, along with our Grandpa Howard (mom’s dad) lived just a few miles away and were always a part of every family gathering. Mickey (Aunt Ruth’s middle child), and just two years younger than I (Janie) shared with us in more recent years, that as a child she was really disappointed to learn that she was not Dutch and that all of those cousins were not her cousins! They were Janie’s cousins!! I think for a little while she was kind of mad at me about that!!!
One of the traditions, probably changed from December 5th (St. Nicholas Eve) in the Netherlands, took place every year on December 24. On that special evening, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even some friends, the Akkermans, who were also of Dutch heritage and were like family to all of us, would gather at one of the family homes where we would anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus. I know there was always a lot of food, but I actually have no recollection of eating anything at those gatherings!! I do remember the hot chocolate that our cousin, Mary Boerjan, would make at all winter family get-togethers. It was the best, and I wish I could have some right now!
When it became dark, we children would anxiously peer out of the windows, going from one side of the house to the other, looking for our first glimpse of Santa. You see, we all lived out in the country on farms, so wherever the party was held, Santa always had plenty of room to land his sleigh and the reindeer out in a field or pasture far away from the prying eyes of children, so we didn’t know from which direction he would come. We would be very quiet as we looked out for him, for we knew that we might hear the sound of his bell before we would see the light from his lantern. It was so exciting, but also a little scary!! This was in the days before electricity in our homes and bright outside yard lights. It was really, really dark! After 1950, a single light bulb in the middle of the room’s ceiling or a lamp gave more light!)
The adults were into this, too. They would be there with us, looking and listening, and to add to the authenticity of this yearly event, one of them would say, “Did you hear that? I think it’s Santa!” Or they would point up into the sky and say, “There he is! I saw the sleigh and reindeer!”
That would make us little ones look and listen that much harder. And then, we would really hear it—the rhythmic ringing of Santa’s cowbell! We’d rush to the windows on the side of the house we thought the sound was coming from and then we’d see him in his red suit with his white beard just barely discernible in the glow of his lantern as he walked the distance from where he had left his sleigh. One of the grown-ups would go quickly to the door and invite him in, and what an awesome thing that was for us! There stood Santa Claus himself in the doorway with a pack full of gifts. We did not rush up to grab him. In fact, we would hang back, sometimes standing close to one of our parents for a little protection. We certainly did not yank on his beard, because WE ALREADY KNEW HE WAS REAL!
He wasn’t dressed in a regal red velvet suit with white fur trim. He didn’t have on a wide shiny black belt or highly polished black boots. His clothing, while red and white, were homemade and rather rustic looking. His face was a mask (to protect him from the subzero temperatures as he flew at high speeds in his open sleigh—but really to disguise the fact that it was Aunt Annie or Cousin Mary or some other person that we knew quite well!!) But we didn’t care. We didn’t see that. We did not have the images of Santa Claus coming at us from every direction as today’s children do. He WAS Santa Claus! He was our vision of Santa Claus!
Santa had gifts for the good kids, and all of us were quite sure we fell into that category. But, you never knew for sure, because Santa might have remembered something you had forgotten from the past year!!
He would begin handing out gifts, calling the names of the recipients in his booming voice (well it sounded booming to me when I was a little girl!). It was such a relief when you heard your own name called, because, if you had been naughty, Santa Claus would wait until all the gifts were handed out, then he would call your name, tell everyone you had been bad, grab you, stuff you into his now empty toy sack, and take you back to the North Pole where he would make you into a doll. (Just a personal note: It never bothered me to think that my dolls had been bad little girls! I never connected the two.) We never found out what he did with the boys!!!
Just to emphasize that he meant business, he would usually start pulling someone toward him, but then an adult would usually talk him out of it, saying that the child really was a pretty good kid. Most of the times, it was an adult he would pull toward him, so as not to frighten the children too much!! Christmas, 1930, stands out in Dorothy’s memory. She was three years old, and our family were hosts to the family. At the time, Mom, Dad, and Dorothy, were still living in the original house built by Grandpa Peter J. Minten, and everyone was in the kitchen. Santa Claus actually did put seven-year-old cousin, Buddy Boerjan, in his sack, and he left with him. He must have changed his mind, because he let Buddy go when he was out of sight of the others. This story was handed down for years, and it made believers out of the next generation!
It was not until I was an adult reading a book of Dutch Christmas customs, that I learned this was a Dutch practice. Sinter Klaus comes from Spain on a ship, rides a white horse while in The Netherlands, and takes naughty children back to Spain in his toy sack. It didn’t mention what he does with them, and I somehow think that the “doll story” was a result of our Aunt Annie’s very active imagination. She was always doing something to make our holidays exciting. She was the youngest of the five children in our dad's family.
Now you know why we had a good healthy fear of Santa as well as great love for him. You've got to admit, it was a great way for our parents to remind us all year that we’d better be good. And besides that, he had a way of watching us through the windows at our house. At various times after Thanksgiving, we’d be doing dishes or one of our other chores in the kitchen at night when we’d hear a scratching noise on the window screen (the window being open due to balmy weather) and turn to see his masked face peering in the window at us. Then he would disappear. Dorothy and Esther learned years later that it was Aunt Annie, our dad’s sister, doing the honors. Dorothy and Esther carried on the tradition when I was little.
Our mother loved Christmas, too, and she would decorate the whole house. The home where we grew up was the second house built by our grandfather in 1926, and many of those Christmas Eve parties were held there when it was Mom and Dad’s turn to be hosts to the family. Today, that same house is our Christmas store, Santa's Texas Workshop. Oh, what memories that house holds of Christmases past!!!
We never lost our childhood awe of the holiday, and as adults we continue to celebrate in very special ways including that family party on Christmas Eve. These days, we meet at a cousin's home for this annual event. Santa still comes, but the story of being taken back to the North Pole if you've been naughty is a thing of the past. Everyone brings food, and we eat and visit and have fun together. There are a lot of little ones in our family right now, as our cousins' grandchildren have children who are getting to experience this Christmas Eve tradition. They are not all there every year, as they spend Christmas Eve with their spouses' families every other year. That's a nice tradition in itself!
While the children all get gifts, we adults often exchange gifts through the person of Santa Claus. This is a great way of giving someone a gag gift without ever having to admit who it is really from! (This is another Dutch tradition!!) However, more often than not, the gifts are very nice, and we do find out who slipped them into Santa's bag.
There were five children in our dad's family. When we were young, the families of Tillie, Henry, and Johnny all lived within “yelling distance” of one another, so the cousins played together all the time. Annie lived in Falfurrias, just a few miles away, and she took part in our Christmases, but she never had any children of her own. We also knew we had lots of cousins from the Albert Minten family in San Antonio, and sometimes they came to see us (although it was not at Christmas). As a result of this, many of the local first cousins and their children remained very close to each other as the years passed. Now in 2017, there are only 6 of our grandparents' 20 grandchildren still living: the three of us Minten sisters (Johnny’s girls), Evelyn Boerjan Solomon, the youngest of Tillie's seven children, (she's still in Falfurrias) Henry's only son, K. Henry, and one of Albert’s nine children, his daughter, Genevieve. (The latter two live in San Antonio.)
Tonight (2017), as I sat and watched the children receiving their gifts from Santa, I could not help remembering our parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who now spend their Christmases with the One whose birth we celebrate. However, through our memories of past Christmas Eves, they were all there with us tonight. I could see their smiling faces in the corners of my mind! I know all my cousins who are my age were seeing them, too, as the children played and had a good time, oblivious to the memories of ancestors who actually made all of this possible for them. I pray that their parents will help keep the past alive for them, because if we don’t know our roots and our history, it takes away some of our future!
I couldn't help but think that our great-grandfather, Renier Minten, and our great-grandmother, JoAnna Maria Mathiola DeBijl Minten, would be glad to know that their decision to leave the Netherlands for America in 1869 when Peter John was 5 years old, leaving family behind to never see them again, was a good decision—led by God to shape future generations as well as the lives of all that they would touch in this country for years to come!
Our other great-grandparents, Rombertus Siemonsma and Teetske Haijes Ververda Siemonsma, left the Netherlands in 1882, coming to America with their family of 10 children. One of them, Marijke, was 18 at the time. Again, a decision led by God, who in 1887, brought these two Dutch families together in the Dakota Territory with the marriage of Peter John and Marijke.
I believe that Reneir and Joanna (she lived only a few months after arriving in the U.S. in 1869), and Peter John and Marijke (Mary) Siemonsma Minten would be proud if they could see their many descendents still gathering together to celebrate Christmas. Some of the little ones who were there tonight are their great-great-great-great grandchildren. Who knows, perhaps on this most special night of the year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, God may allow those who dwell with Him to have glimpses of their families here on Earth. I'd like to think so. I'd also like to think that if that’s so, our ancestors are proud of what their many descendants have become and what they have accomplished. We have a lot of family members who have done good things as they have sought out the will of God in their lives. They have married men and women who have added the traditions of their families with those of ours. The family’s children of today have a rich and wonderful heritage behind them.
As children, we did eventually learn the truth about Santa Claus. Different members of the family had played the part, including Aunt Annie Minten (Bone) and Cousin Mary Boerjan (Bone), who were really good Santas. (Those two women, aunt and niece, married brothers) In more recent years, Tim Boerjan (grandson of Tillie Minten Boerjan) has been Santa with a great sense of humor! He was our Santa last night!
But the most important thing that all of us who grew up in this wonderful family learned was the true meaning of Christmas. While Santa is a wonderful figment of the imaginations of our ancestors, and of ours, Jesus Christ is real in each of our lives today. All of our parents did a good job of raising us to know the difference. It never crossed our minds to question the reality of Jesus’ birth, His life, His death on the Cross of Calvary, or His Resurrection. He truly lives for us and in us today.
I pray that each of you, my readers, will have a very blessed and merry CHRISTmas and that the true spirit of the season will remain in your hearts all year long.