Illustration by Eliane Gerrits

This Christmas, in a year that took so many magical rituals from us, I think back to my “Grandpa and Grandma Amsterdam,” as we called them, living in their upstairs apartment on the Nachtegaalstraat — or Nightingale Street. As frugally as they lived, they still reserved a “tidy room” that was used only for special occasions.

As a child I hardly dared to enter it. A painted statue of the Madonna stood on a shelf on the wall. On the sideboard their wedding photo sat next to portraits of their grandchildren. They ate there only on holidays, such as Christmas. That day Grandma carefully unwrapped from the tissue paper the tablecloth with the glittery silver wire that as a young girl she had embroidered at school. The table was set with the “good” china. Grandpa carefully placed the plaster figures into the wooden nativity scene. In all those years, none of them had broken. Only one of the sheep was missing a leg.

But while Grandpa sliced the roast rabbit, a very different scene unfolded in the apartment next to them. A family lived there with seven young children, including a newborn baby. Earlier that week they had noisily dragged a Christmas tree up the stairwell. Now they were loudly singing Christmas carols.

Not a “Silent Night” for my grandparents. But what they didn’t know was that their neighbors had lit the candles in the tree for the first time that night, real candles of course. From one moment to the next, the singing suddenly turned to thumping, shouting, and howling. Grandpa smelled something burning, Grandma started to cough. When they opened the front door, they saw a wall of flames raging in the stairwell. They feared their end had come.

Fortunately, the fire department drove into the street with blaring sirens. Thank goodness they work on Christmas Eve, too. My grandparents were helped out through their kitchen window via a fire escape ladder. Dazed, the two dear old people stood on the sidewalk in their best Sunday clothes, shivering from misery and cold. Thick black smoke poured from the windows of their home.

Next to them stood the neighbors with all their children. The little ones clung to their mother’s skirts. The oldest, who should have lit the candles, ran around the sidewalk in panic. When the ambulance arrived, the mother tried to stuff her gasping children in there. It was then that she discovered that the oldest had run away. Where was that brat? She would just drag him back by his hair. To have her hands free, she pushed her baby into Grandma’s arms and said, “There, hold him tight.”

Suddenly Grandma had become the center of a living nativity scene right on Nightingale Street. For a moment, the ambulance’s flashing light was the Star of Bethlehem. A good shepherd, disguised as a firefighter, put a blanket over her and the baby. Curious neighbors showed up bearing gifts, such as cups of hot chocolate. My grandmother had lost her tablecloth and the roasted rabbit dinner. But in her arms, she embraced the miracle of humanity. A Christmas child.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. She writes a weekly column for the NRC Handelsblad, a major newspaper in Amsterdam. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.

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