Sometimes you just have to write…
Every year on New Year’s Day, my family and I hold an open house, an all-day party. We invite friends, acquaintances, colleagues and neighbours, and people drift in and out all afternoon and into the evening. It’s always gezellig, an untranslatable Dutch word that means something like pleasant, cozy, enjoyable: an occasion that’s filled with warmth and good company.
The whole thing started with my parents, though I’m sure it was my mother’s idea. In any case, it was her project, and she was project director.
For the first several years, it was a Christmas Day party. When you’re Jewish and living in a predominantly Christian area, as we were, Christmas Day can be terribly dull. Everyone we knew in our suburban Connecticut town was at home eating Christmas dinner with their family and opening presents – and as children, my two sisters and I were terribly jealous of the scale of that gift-giving. We were forbidden by our parents from calling any of our friends on that day, so we were relegated to playing with each other – not something we did well – or watching old Christmas movies on TV, or curling up in a corner and reading a book all day, which was what I did once I learned how to read.
So my mother decided to hold a Christmas Day open house. All of the members of our congregation (Humanistic Judaism), all of our relatives from Boston and New Haven, plus my parents’ other Jewish friends, were invited. And many of them came.
Each year the event grew. My parents invited Christian friends as well, who would come over after Christmas dinner. My father would invite colleagues, clients, and so on: anyone he felt could help his business. It would be loud and crowded and – again, it’s the best word – gezellig.
At some point, my mother realized that because it was on Christmas Day, many people they had invited couldn’t come, so she hit on the idea of shifting it to New Year’s Day. So the tradition was born. My parents would send out invitations, and as we got older we were also allowed to invite friends. Many people came every year, and it became part of their tradition as well. I still hear from people from time to time with their memories of these parties.
Starting a few days beforehand, we would set to work. As little girls, my sisters and I helped somewhat willingly: at least, when it came to things like cookie baking. As we moved into our teens, it took a lot more shouting on my mother’s part to get us to do what she wanted, but we always ended up doing it, mostly silently and sulkily. My mother would order us about like her own team of servants. We would tidy, vacuum, and generally do whatever she demanded, whether we wanted to or not.
As the day neared, we moved to helping with the food preparation. First we would go shopping with her, then she would set us to work chopping, baking, and so on. As we got older we were able to do more of it ourselves, such as baking a batch of cookies without her supervision. She always produced an enormous quantity of food herself, usually vast dishes of lasagna and moussaka.
The idea, in those days, was that people could eat lunch and/or dinner, depending on when they arrived or left. So, from midday on, the dining room table would be covered with a variety of breads and bagels, along with cold cuts, cheeses and various spreads to put on them. There was always a huge mound of chopped herring, and one of chopped liver. Starting from about four or five o’clock, my mother would cook the lasagna and moussaka and set them on chafing dishes so guests could help themselves to dinner whenever they wanted. We used paper plates and plastic utensils as much as possible to lighten the cleaning-up, and one of our jobs on the day was to pick up discarded plates and napkins and cups to throw out, and also to make sure every serving dish of chips or nuts or cheese and crackers was kept filled.
In the living room, at one end of the house, there would be nibbles: cheese and crackers, mostly, as well as cut raw vegetables and dips. That’s where many of the women would congregate, if they weren’t hanging out in the kitchen. The men would gather at the other end of the house, in the family room, because that’s where the TV was, and they had to watch the football (I’m talking about American football here, of course.) They would mostly have salty snacks like chips and nuts. The men would make sure to arrive before the game began, and would never leave before it was over.
Also in the family room, so that the men wouldn’t have to travel far, was the drinks table. This was my father’s responsibility; I don’t remember him doing any other preparation for this party other than the drinks table and perhaps doing last-minute house repairs. There was always an enormous selection of whiskeys, wines, and the makings of mixed drinks like gin and tonics or martinis. The men certainly made the most of what was on offer, and the volume of the cheering would increase as the afternoon progressed.
From an early age I was given the responsibility for making the mulled cider. We would buy the cider locally, and I would heat it and spice it with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, adding slices of oranges and lemons. It took me several years of experimentation with different forms of alcohol to realize that bourbon was the best way to spike the mulled cider. The men tended to stick to the hard liquor or beer, but the women enjoyed the cider.
So that was the tradition, and it continued until my parents died in 1995. By that time I was married and living in San Francisco, but had already taken up the tradition myself. I couldn’t be at my parents’ party on the east coast, so I gave an open house myself every New Year’s Day. I’ve been doing it ever since. We moved here to Holland in 1997, and we’re still doing it.
It’s distinctly smaller scale than my parents’ open house. I think we’ll never know as many people in one region as they knew – our friends and family are scattered around the world. And I’ve added my own take on the traditions: instead of lasagna or moussaka, I make snert, a traditional Dutch pea soup. I still make mulled cider with bourbon, and I still bake in vast quantities.
As I’m preparing, I order my kids around, just like my mother did to my sisters and me. My daughter, Anne (20), helps willingly, while my son, Robert (14), was a bit sulky for the first time this year. My husband, Albert, helps more than my father ever did, especially with the cleaning and shopping, and, just like my father, he’s in charge of the drinks.
In a way, the whole event is a memorial to my mother, even though no one at the party besides me and my husband actually knew her. And, in the days leading up to New Year’s Day, I have flashes of my mother. I hear myself saying things she said. I see my hands mixing batter or chopping vegetables and I see my mother’s hands. My daughter takes a picture of me, and I see my mother. I feel like I’m channeling her, and it feels right.