The rituals of the Christian calendar were a mystery to me when I was little. I lived in a predominantly protestant part of the Netherlands, but, in my case, my parents raised me without a religious identity of any kind. My parents were not of the same religion, one was protestant and the other Roman Catholic, neither attended church, in fact both had turned their back on the religion of their childhood in favour of those being explored by my somewhat eccentric and always existentialist parents. By age four, when this memory of mine takes place, my parents were following the teachings of the Buddha quite seriously, and also exploring the occult and paranormal as a bit of a hobby.
I had come to accept Christmas as a time for decorating trees and eating lots of good stuff with friends and family, who were rarely seen the rest of the year. The significance of the history of this wonderful feast were not known to me. Easter also was a time for special foods and candies rarely seen at other times.
Eggs of course were part of daily life, or at least nearly so. My eggs were normally soft-boiled and in an egg cup accompanied by a slice of toasted bread. The anticipation of this breakfast was in itself an event. My mother miraculously timed the egg to perfection and the toast had been toasted alongside on the cast iron stove in the kitchen all was warm and fragrant, and the egg was soft and runny.
This was before the mass raising of chickens who never saw the light of day. These eggs came from chickens most often known to us personally or from one of the merchants at the market, who came with cages of birds also sold (unbeknown to vegetarian me, to become meat for soup). The eggs had bright yellow yolks and were mixed brown and white, some had feathers and straw stuck to them so they always required washing before cooking with them.
I very much liked chickens. I had spent much time sitting with them in the chicken house at the back of my grandmother’s house in Rotterdam. Not unlike cats they cuddled of you stroked and petted them, and they made a wonderfully calming sound when you did.
Easter was a time for hard-boiled eggs, lots of them, best of all we painted them. They were boiled with beets and others with onion to turn them red purple, yellow and orange, and the rest was painted with watercolour paint and a fine brush. My mother would meticulously plan the painting and first pencilled the outline on the eggs and then I was allowed to fill in some of them with pain in whatever colour I chose. some also had words on them, but I could not read. Mostly I filled in the circles and flowers and triangles. The eggs were for friends and family and neighbours so there were several dozens of them.
We kept some, of course, and I always hoped some would not be claimed and we would have even more. Hard boiled eggs sliced on toast with mayonnaise and a little black pepper was a bit of heaven and we so rarely had them that way. At new years when there were visitors we had them on small squares of toast with mayonnaise and pickle. Being that we had little money, the slices had to be very thin, as we had many friends and not so many eggs, and pickles. It was not looked down on or thought of as cheap, everyone was pretty much in the same boat, the point really was one of hospitality, sharing, not showing off.
The most often seen wildlife in the Netherlands was the bunny. Rabbit was a frequent pet and a staple meat, across the street one of the families who lived in a house with a yard used the bunnies to keep the lawn trimmed and every spring there would be a new set of bunnies doing the moving. It did not occur to me then but I suppose the previous year’s bunnies were used in soup and stews through the winter.
At the baker and the local candy shop (Jamin’s) bunnies, chickens and eggs appeared this time every year in chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate and even white chocolate. some were covered in tin paper, pink and blue and green. Baskets holding several confections on a grass made of stringy tissue paper and tied up with a bow was the thing of dreams. I’d never had a basket like that and I was jumping up and down in front of the window to see it better. Oh if only I could have the pink basket with the chicken and little eggs on green grass tied up with a bright blue bow.
Easter morning my feet hit the cold linoleum but the cold was not a concern, I was wholly focused on what the Easter bunny might have brought me. I peeled around the corner to the living room and there sitting on the coffee table was the most beautiful basket with a big brown chocolate chicken surrounded by a variety of little chocolate eggs, some in tin paper and others covered in a sugary shell of candy pink and robin’s egg blue.
After breakfast consisting of the treasured toast with hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise and black pepper we were going for a walk. The day turned out o be very sunny and quite warm. I only needed to wear my green cardigan over my lilac dress. I wore my Sunday best shoes and little white gloves. I would not leave the basket with the chicken behind. I carried it proudly over my arm. I resisted eating any of it since it looked so beautiful just as it was and I wanted to be seen with it.
As no day is entirely perfect it was inevitable some part of the day would not deliver only that which was good. The sun, the warm and wonderful sun, alas proved a little too warm. slowly during our walk on the sunny side of the street had melted the chocolate chicken into the green tissue paper which looked like grass. I noticed it only when we were nearly home. I was inconsolable.
My parents who were not made of money, and even if they were there was not one candy shop open on a Sunday, would and could not replace the chicken, or the one or two eggs that had also melted. Instead, very patiently my parents sat with me several hours, and slowly peeled the tissue paper away from the chocolate as best they could. The smallest bits of chocolate found their way on a thickly buttered slice of fresh bread, happily consumed by a little girl. A little girl who’d just learned something about sunlight and the effects it can have on substances such as chocolate. Happily the bow and basket were spared being mucked up with melted chocolate so the basket was entirely useable still and for years to come was taken shopping to the market (real and imagined) and later would house my Lego. We received many compliments on our painted eggs, and received so many eggs in return that happily there were many more days of eggs on toast than I dared hope for. What a lovely holiday!