Category Archives: St. Nicholas

Put Out Your Shoes: It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve

Tomorrow, December 6, is the feast day of St. Nicholas, and tonight, in the overnight hours, St. Nicholas will travel about on his donkey. Wise children will leave carrots and sweet hay in their shoes when they go to bed. When they wake up in the morning, they may find that St. Nicholas has taken the carrots and hay for his donkey, and left fruits and nuts and candies in their shoes in exchange, and maybe some small presents, as well. It’s a sweet and old Advent tradition, part of the countdown to Christmas. And with it, we meet the first of the Midwinter gift bearers. St. Nicholas leads a procession of gift bearers that continue on through Advent and Christmas with others like the Christkindl, Santa Lucia, Father Christmas and Père Noël and Babbo Natale and Santa Claus, los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) and a kind old witch named Befana who will sweep away the remnants of the Christmas season when it ends with Epiphany on the 6th of January.

That’s a lot of gifts. But these gift bearers harken back to a time when oranges and hazelnuts and marzipan were wonderful wintertime gifts. (Some of us still feel this way; living in a small old house with small old closets, Seth and I really appreciate gifts that are simple and edible.) These gift bearers also are quite regional. As for St. Nicholas, although he was from Turkey and he is a patron saint of so many cities and countries, on this night, St. Nicholas’ Eve, he is known best in Northern Europe, in places like Germany and the Netherlands.

Nicholas in his humanity was a Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He became known far and wide for his acts of generosity… not the least of which was his hiding bags of coins in the shoes of poor girls who were without dowries. His gift bearer legend grew out of this human kindness. But this Midwinter gift bearer travels not just with his donkey, but also with a dark companion known by various names: Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, and Pelznickel are some of them. But he is best known as Krampus: half man, half goat, a bit terrifying… the punisher of children who have been naughty. Perhaps this dark companion comes out of that same humanity of Nicholas’, for we all have our dark side, and maybe the Krampus is Nicholas’ dark side, manifested.

To be sure, St. Nicholas and his companion will be parading in cities throughout Northern Europe tonight. I learn so much from reader comments to the blog and here are two that were posted in the past about St. Nicholas’ Eve: Kelly O’Brien wrote, “I live in Germany & just experienced my first Krampus fest in the Austrian Tyrol region over Thanksgiving. It was terrifying! Not only do modern-day Krampus tout chains and whips, but parade through the village with torches and lots of other fiery devices. The costumes & masks were creepy beautiful, apparently a source of local craftsmanship pride. Do you think this is where ‘going to hell in a hand basket’ comes from?”

And Tad DuBois wrote, “I live and work in Germany and we went to sleep to howling winds last night and awoke to snow and ice. The neighbor’s kinder were all standing in front of their windows watching the snow fly (and no doubt hoping for school cancelations). At my office this morning St. Nicholas and Krampus have just visited. St. Nicholas dispensed candy canes and Krampus had little bags of something dark, coal or reindeer turds perhaps (actually was dark chocolate molded to resemble bits of coal). To be truthful, the Krampus who visited seemed to be a mash-up of Eye-gore from ‘Young Frankenstein’ and Riff-Raff from ‘Rocky Horror.’ Still a wonderful tradition.”

Kelly and Tad: If you’re reading this year, thank you. The parades and the visits from St. Nicholas and Krampus all sound wonder-full. Here in Lake Worth, in these United States, where these legends never gained much foothold (Krampus only has one human foot, after all), our celebration in this house will be much quieter. At our local Publix, they sell St. Nicholas (or St. Claus) cookies in the bakery that come from Steenstra’s Bakery in Michigan. They come in an orange box wrapped in cellophane. Steenstra’s has been selling St. Claus cookies since 1926. They taste of almond and warm spices like ginger and clove, and they depict five different scenes about St. Claus (more correctly about the kind bishop who gave gifts to the poor while they slept). There is St. Claus on a horse (a derivation of that donkey), a boy and a girl (because they like to receive presents from St. Claus), a rooster (because St. Claus starts his day at sunup), an owl (because St. Claus works til sundown), and a windmill (because St. Claus lives in a windmill).

I’ll probably get us some of those Steenstra’s cookies, and maybe tonight we will make some mulled wine, our first batch as we enter this winter, as the first of the gift bearers enters, too. We’ll leave our shoes by the bed, because we always do (again, small closets). St. Nicholas may not make it all the way here from Northern Europe, but Haden the Convivio shop cat will maybe drop one of the stuffed little toys she hunts in the darkness into one of our shoes. She’ll make those mysterious feline hunting noises she makes each night when we shut the lights. We take mystery where we can find it.

Image: “St. Nicholas Eve” by Richard Brakenburgh. Oil on canvas, 1685 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

On Advent, St. Nicholas, and Speculaas

stclaus

Holiday confession time: When the Advent season arrives as early as it did this year, which basically stems from Christmas itself falling on a Sunday, I have a harder time than usual transitioning into the Christmas spirit. We’re already past the Second Sunday of Advent (it was yesterday) and still you’ll find dried corn hanging on our front door and orange lights strung on our bookcase. Though we’ve been opening the windows on our advent calendar, we had to catch up the first couple of days because we didn’t have a calendar chosen on the First. And life’s been so busy, Seth and I have ourselves quite a lot of catching up to do on our advent candles.

Ah, but tonight comes St. Nicholas’ Eve, and with this night, we welcome the first of the Midwinter gift bearers, wending his way through the midwinter darkness. Advent and Christmas suddenly seem more tangible, more real. On years like this, St. Nicholas serves as my reality check.

Although Santa Claus is a super big deal here in the States, and though we often call him Old St. Nick, the real St. Nicholas barely earns a blink of anyone’s eyes here. But there are other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, where this is a very important night indeed. It is the Eve of St. Nicholas (St. Nicholas’s Day being tomorrow, the 6th of December), and children there will place their shoes by the chimney before going to bed in hopes that St. Nicholas will fill them with gifts. They’ll set out carrots and hay for his donkey.

In these overnight hours, the old bishop will make his rounds. Good children might wake up on St. Nicholas’ Day to find their shoes filled with fruits and nuts and sweets and small toys. But St. Nicholas does not wander alone; he travels tonight with a dark companion. The companion goes by many names, depending on the region––Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, Pelznickel… but he is best known as Krampus: half man, half goat, a bit terrifying… the punisher of children who have been naughty. These two are not as secretive as our American Santa. There are parades this time of year throughout Europe for St. Nicholas’ Day and Krampus pretty much steals the show at some of these parades, especially in parts of Germany, where tonight is known as Krampusnacht.

I love the time of the Midwinter gift bearers. Such a beautiful way to make the Midwinter darkness less… dark (despite Krampus). St. Nicholas will be followed over the next few weeks by the Christkindl, by Santa Lucia, by Father Christmas and Santa Claus, by los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) and a kind old witch named Befana who will sweep away the remnants of the Christmas season in early January.

But that’s all a long ways away. For us tonight here in this little old house in Lake Worth, we will leave our shoes by the bed, which we always do. Our small old home has small old closets, and so we almost always have a couple of pairs of shoes outside the closet––there’s just no place in the closet to put them. I don’t know if St. Nicholas and Krampus will make their way this far from Europe, but chances are good that once we go to bed, Haden the Convivio shop cat will spend some time hunting down her little stuffed animal toys, carrying them about and making the odd cries that cats make once they have caught their quarry, and maybe tonight she will drop one of them into someone’s shoe, as she is wont to do so many nights. But before those magic overnight hours, we will brew ourselves some tea, or maybe some mulled wine, and we will for sure open a package of Steenstra’s St. Claus cookies. The cookies are speculaas, a type of Dutch cookie made for St. Nicholas’ Eve. They sell them all year long at the Publix bakery in a small cellophane-wrapped package. The cellophane is clear and the box inside is bright orange. The Steenstra family emigrated from the Netherlands to Michigan in 1926, and that’s where the cookies are still made, as they have been for about 90 years now. They taste of almond and warm spices like ginger and clove, and they depict five different scenes about St. Claus (more correctly about St. Nicholas of Myra, the kind fourth century bishop who gave gifts to the poor while they slept). There is St. Claus on a horse (a derivation of that donkey), a boy and a girl (because they like to receive presents from St. Claus), a rooster (because St. Claus starts his day at sunup), an owl (because St. Claus works til sundown), and a windmill (because St. Claus lives in a windmill). The first of the gift bearers gives us reason to celebrate tonight; we hope you’ll join us in that.

Image: Our Steenstra’s speculaas, ready to go. Just have to mull that wine now.

 

Unless Ye Become as Little Children

Kids

THIRD DAY of CHRISTMAS
Holy Innocents Day, Childremas

“Christmas is for children” is something we hear at times, often from older folks who have fallen out of touch with their own sense of wonder. It is a statement with which I heartily disagree. Christmas is for everyone. Nonetheless, here we have a day that has always been devoted to children. It is the Third Day of Christmas, Childremas, or Holy Innocents Day. The Christmas story begins with peace and wonder but quickly turns, for the world has always been threatened by the insecurities of weak people in positions of power. The news of the birth of a king did not sit well with King Herod of Judea, and he ordered the slaughter of all the children of the land. This day honors those children and all children.

In last year’s chapter of the Convivio Book of Days for Childremas, we mentioned the tradition of the Boy Bishop. One of our readers, Kathy Whalen in England, wrote that Manchester Cathedral had recently elected a girl bishop for the first time, the first in the United Kingdom. Well done, we thought! Here’s the tradition, one that goes back to medieval times throughout Europe: a Boy Bishop would be elected at cathedrals each year on St. Nicholas’ Day, the Sixth of December. He was typically chosen from the boys in the choir and for the duration of his reign, which typically ended on Childremas, he wore bishop’s vestments and performed all the duties of a bishop, save for celebrating Mass. In some places, the actual bishop would be obliged to follow the orders of the Boy Bishop, which calls to mind the Feast of Fools, which will be celebrated tomorrow on the Fourth Day of Christmas, when the normal order of things is ceremoniously turned on its head. This melding of Childremas and the Feast of Fools probably is informed by the words of the Magnificat: God has put down the mighty from their throne and has exalted the humble and the meek. On the Third Day of Christmas, typically, the Boy Bishop would be allowed to return to being a child once again (though we noticed the Girl Bishop at Manchester Cathedral last year had to be a bishop all the way to Epiphany!).

One of the oldest traditions for Childremas is the ceremonial exchange of token blows using evergreen branches of birch or pine or rosemary or bay: parents beat their children, children beat their parents, husbands and wives beat each other, and masters and servants exchanged blows, too. The beatings were in good fun and were not at all done with malice or cruelty. Along with the beatings came the words, “Fresh, green, fair and fine! Gingerbread and brandy-wine!” or else, “Fresh green! Long life! Give me a coin!”

Finally, in Spain and Latin America, the Third Day of Christmas is a day for practical jokes, kind of like April Fools Day. The victims of these jokes are known as inocentes, although sometimes it is the prankster that gets that name in a plea for forgiveness. No matter how you spend the day, the theme, it seems, is universal: celebrating and honoring children… and perhaps reconnecting with the child you once were, revisiting the land we all came from. And why not? Tomorrow is the Feast of Fools. Here’s your chance to practice for that.

 

Image: Seth and I were married, after twenty years together, this past October 26. All our nieces and nephews and great nieces and great nephews played their parts, some carrying flowers, some carrying pumpkins. They are the kids in our lives, and here they all are in this photograph by Charles Pratt.

 

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