THE OBLIGATORY CHRISTMAS EVE POST
Growing up in Valkenswaard (a small burg in the Dutch province of North-Brabant), the Christmas season was always marked by drear, fog, rain, gloom, mist, sleet, howling winds, and influenza.
And midnight mass.
We never went, but we could hear them. Our house was on the south-western corner of the market square, the Saint Nicholas church was diagonally opposite. Sometimes snow would muffle the sound, but more often not. The climate has changed, and the famous wintry vistas of the mediaeval masters have long ceased to be the dominant visual in the Netherlands.
Catholicism in the regions south of the three rivers has long been vestigial, a matter of pride and stubbornness more than anything else (except, of course, for pockets of verkramptheid such as produced that bitter anti-Semite former prime minister Andries van Agt).
Most Catholics remember that their parents and grandparents were more or less second class citizens, in practice barred from high position and public office, and with few avenues for education or advancement.
For two centuries after the eighty year war against Spain the church of Rome was banned, and services were held in secret. For that entire time, the Catholic hierarchy of the Netherlands was subject to Calvinist meddling and sabotage, except in nominally separate territories such as Ravenstein.
The regions of Brabant and Limburg were conquered territories (Generality Lands) administered directly from the Hague, not to be re-incorporated or granted rights until the remainder of both provinces had been freed. Which was not part of the program. Not until the nineteenth century did the Calvinists come to terms with the fact that over one third of the Dutch were, in fact, resolutely not Calvinist.
During that period, Catholicism survived. A stubborn and stunted folk-Catholicism, from the ground up rather than from the top down. Defensive, quiet, and hidden from official view.
Catholic faith flourished in the context of the Schutters Gilden - the militia guilds of the small towns and villages in the Meiery of Den Bosch. Most of the guilds were named after the patron saint of the community, and served as loan society, social safety net, and burial society, in the absence of other organizations. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, members invested generously in guild silver - plaques, beakers, and such like - both as a means of adding glory to their civitat, and to build capital. Many guilds consequently had impressive hoards of silver, the accumulation of generations.
Which, once the Catholic church was legal again, it energetically set about robbing.
The edifice of the church in Brabant and Limburg is founded upon priestly theft and official connivance.
One can perhaps understand why when the Pope visited the Netherlands, security precautions had to be better than when Hirohito came. Historically, the natives have a bone to pick. Rome betrayed them in the fifteen hundreds, in the sixteen hundreds, in the eighteen hundreds, and in the nineteen hundreds. And denied that they existed during the seventeen hundreds.
There is a history there.
The guilds still flourish, and still serve as the focus of much civic life. They have again amassed silver. The pride in Outer en Heerd (altar and hearth - the two fundaments of small town identity) is stronger than ever. The men of the guilds, on the feast-days of their patron saint still march into THEIR church, with their antiquated weapons and their banners, to the rolling thunder of war drums. It is truly a stirring spectacle.
It might be the only time many of them have actually been there that year.
They dislike the priest, regard the church functionaries as leeches, and genuinely despise the entire foreign branch of the church as thieves, meddlers, and arrogant busybodies.
But on Christmas eve, as per ancient custom, they will once more go to church. And utterly diminish whatever message the padre chose to deliver with the glory of their singing.