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Posts Tagged ‘St. Nicholas’

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When I was a child, I never associated St. Nicholas with demons or scary beings of any kind. Sure, St. Nick might leave coal and switches for a naughty child, just as Santa Claus was rumored to do. However, I wasn’t naughty enough to worry about that kind of treatment.

Some stories described a little black boy named Peter who accompanied St. Nicholas, carrying the big sack with all the toys and goodies. My impression of “Black Peter” was he was sweet and helpful, not frightening. Actually, I was a little jealous of him. I wouldn’t have minded traveling around with St. Nicholas, going to parties with him to distribute oranges and playthings, helping fill those intriguing wooden shoes the Dutch children left on their doorsteps instead of hanging up stockings.

I first learned of the Devil, or Krampus, that supposedly traveled with St. Nicholas when I took some traveler’s German classes. When Mom and I made a trip to Germany and Austria in 1990 to visit some of the Christmas markets, we saw for ourselves how much the Devil is associated with the celebration of St. Nicholas.

In Innsbruck, I saw foil-wrapped chocolate devils in a candy store window among the chocolate Santas and marzipan. In fact, while we were out strolling near the Golden Roof one afternoon, we saw two teenage girls dressed in red tights, plastic  horns, and pointed tails walking toward us. They had baskets and were passing out treats. It was two days before the Feast of St. Nicholas.

The incident that truly brought the full impact of the Krampus home to me was in Salzburg the next evening. It was after dark just off the main square where the market was set up, and we stood waiting for the tour bus to arrive to take us back to the hotel.

Suddenly there was a ruckus coming from one of the narrow medieval streets, a racket of tinny clanging and shouting. We turned as one just in time to see a cherry bomb explode, and then the approach of some appalling-looking creatures. They were tall, covered with long fur, and had winding antlers protruding from either side of their horrific faces. There was an entire crowd of them marching around, taunting the people along the street, clanging their noisemakers and doing their best to make a nuisance of themselves.

I think we were all flattened against the front of the building where we stood as the krampus riot passed by, although we certainly were laughing as well. One gentleman in his late 60s, a veteran, proclaimed in his Texas drawl, “I’m not scared of anything, and that scared me!”

Later our tour guide explained this was a tradition on St. Nicholas Eve. I was pleased to have witnessed an actual “krampus attack.” Before we boarded our bus in downtown Salzburg, we saw a big truck with a crowd of krampus loaded in back. The tailgate was up, and as the truck drove away, a swarm of boys gleefully charged, plastering the truck (and a few of the demons huddling inside) with snowballs.

I never got any photos of the krampus parade, but if you go to YouTube and put “krampus” into the search field, you’ll pull up all kinds of videos of some terrifying (and often hilarious) creatures.

There’s also background information on the krampus here and here. And this site shows some very interesting (and very weird) early 20th century postcards featuring krampus.

Note: The photo at the top of this post is of a little krampus figurine I got for my mother from Silver Crow Creations, purveyers of the wonderous and unique. I bought one for the Hooligans as well, hiding it in the branches of the small pink aluminum tree Diamonqueen keeps in the kitchen. When we went out driving to see Christmas lights one evening last week, I suggested maybe the krampus would visit while we were gone to check on the Hooligan children and report back to Santa if they were being good. I said maybe he’d leave a sign. When the Krampus figure was discovered lurking among the pink shimmery branches of the kitchen tree, it gave even J.Hooligan pause (although I can’t detect any improvement in his behavior because of it.)

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I was in college (in 1972) only a semester before I dropped out. Even with financial assistance, the burden on my family was heavy. I just didn’t feel right about it, especially since I wasn’t studying for any specific kind of job. I was an English major, but I had no plans to be a journalist or a teacher. I hadn’t even been that hot on going to college in the first place. I decided it made more sense for me to get a full-time job and start making my way in the world.

Even though The College of Mount St. Joseph is in Cincinnati (about a 40-minute drive from Oakley in those days), I was encouraged to live at the dorm for a variety of reasons. This allowed me to feel part of the college community for the short time I was there. However, because of my brief stay, I tend to compartmentalize my experiences as if they weren’t part of my official memory bank. I don’t know why; but that’s how I wind up overlooking some of the special times I had.

One of these was St. Nicholas Eve. I’d learned that the senior class spent the evening decorating the lobby of the dorm. I’d also heard that each resident was supposed to put one shoe outside her door before she went to bed (most of us lived two to a room). I loved the idea of putting out a shoe instead of hanging a stocking, so I did this enthusiastically. I then finished studying and went to bed without thinking any more about it.

Sometime after midnight (maybe one a.m.), my roommate and I were startled awake by someone crashing open our door. I was barely conscious before I felt myself being pelted with hard candy. The entire senior class was parading en masse down the hall, shouting Christmas carols, ringing sleigh bells, blowing on the kind of long plastic trumpets that fans used to take to sports games, and hurling handfuls of hard candy through the open dorm doors. It was an astonishing experience to be sitting in bed in our semi-dark room, watching this chaotic pageant passing in the middle of the night.

Some juniors and sophomores, as well as those freshmen who knew the details of the tradition, had greased the handles of the dorm doors with Vaseline. Apparently this wasn’t enough to slow down the revelers. What’s more, resident floor assistants (all seniors) had brought along their master door keys, so even locked doors were no barrier.

Once the seniors had charged on to other floors, we ran outside to find our shoes filled with candy. Then, as the final part of the tradition, we donned robes or sweatshirts or whatever would make us warm and decent enough to rush down to the lobby to see the completed Christmas decorations. I don’t recall specific details. There was a tree, of course, and green boughs hung everywhere. There were a lot of windows and glass doors leading off of the lobby, and these were painted in holiday scenes both religious and secular.

There’s something about being half awake that lends enchantment to an experience. I was truly enchanted by the entire Yuletide rite. Our season included “Secret Santa” and a holiday meal in the cafeteria downstairs (also decorated by the seniors). I commented to an older student before we went home for break that I felt as if I’d already celebrated Christmas.

“I always feel that way,” the student replied. “When I get home, I think, ‘What? The decorations are still up? We still have gifts to open?’ It’s like a second Christmas.”

I wonder if that middle-of-the-night tradition survives today, and if new rituals have developed in the decades since that night of flying hard candy.

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I loved the interesting little gifts I got for St. Nick. The magnet set I referred to in this post might have been a repeat gift when I was young; it was a classic dimestore toy, with a horseshoe-shaped magnet and various tiny metal bars and lithographed tin circus shapes that the magnet picked up. When I was in second grade, I got a small bell, probably a Christmas ornament my mother found in a variety store. What made it stand out to me was the fact it was shaped like the hand bell the nuns rang to call us in from recess. It was blue metal and made a tinny tinkle when I shook it, the little handle gripped between my equally little thumb and forefinger.

The year I was eleven was the St. Nicholas of the stocking full of knickknacks. Those were the days when you could walk into Woolworth’s and see dozens of little china figurines for a dime or a quarter apiece. I had quite a selection: a horsehead, a ballerina with a stiff net skirt, a bird, maybe a dog. Unfortunately, I forget them all now, but I was quite pleased at the time. I don’t think many survived as I displayed them on a rickety wire set of shelves in my room. Every time I barely knocked into the shelves, knickknacks would go flying.

At twelve I got a small stamped sampler kit, which I’ve always credited with inspiring my interest in embroidery. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at the time, and I don’t think I actually finished it until a year or more later. I have no idea where it wound up, but I’m still making samplers.

At thirteen, I found powdered blush in the toe of my stocking, a sign of the changes coming. I don’t recall as readily what St. Nick brought the following years. Maybe paperback classics for my library. Maybe collector’s spoons for the collection I started when I was fifteen.

No matter what the year, there were always goodies, too: Mom’s first homemade Christmas cookies of the season, a candy bar or two, a candy cane, and a tangerine.

One year at school, maybe when I was in fifth grade, St. Nicholas left each child a gift: a small stocking cut out of red construction paper with a holy medal attached. There was one on each desktop when we arrived that morning in our classroom. It’s touching to think of Sister cutting out all those paper stockings and fastening a medal to each one.

Mom and I still exchange gifts for St. Nicholas, although it’s rarely a morning thing now. We celebrate with Diamondqueen and TPM and the Hooligan kids, which means we often exchange our little presents in the evening, or at lunchtime on a weekend. (The Hooligans do get their presents from St. Nick himself in the morning.) We still get delicious samplings of the first Christmas cookies from Mom and other sweets. Diamondqueen’s own tradition is to give us calendars for the new year printed with specially chosen photos of the Hooligans for each month.

It’s a happy time, and the kids are every bit as excited as I always was. I can’t help but get nostalgic, though, about the St. Nicholas mornings of my childhood, a little sampling of Christmas to whet our appetites, when I treasured the simple gifts at least as much as the bigger presents Santa brought.

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I was surprised when I found out that everyone doesn’t celebrate The Feast of St. Nicholas. It was common in our neighborhood, with the Catholic kids especially. My mother didn’t know about St. Nicholas until later in childhood when a neighbor introduced her to the holiday (she’s got a great post about that here). I’m glad it all made an impression on her so her children could enjoy the tradition as well.

Both of my parents had always gotten their gifts on Christmas Eve instead of on Christmas morning when they were children, and so our Christmases were celebrated the same way. We kids were fine with that; it was all we knew. To do it the “traditional” way of waking up on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought would have seemed unnatural to us.

That, though, was another reason to relish St. Nicholas Day. It was our opportunity to hang up our stockings and go to sleep excited at the prospect of what morning would bring.

We never had a fireplace, so some of our methods of “hanging” our stockings were inventive. The one I remember as most common was slinging the loop of the stocking over the nail that held the tiebacks to the window curtains. This worked well because it kept the stockings away from the family dog. However, on one of our early St. Nick mornings in East End, we found out that other creatures had been stirring. When one of us pulled a Nestle’s Crunch Bar out of our stocking, Mom and Grandma immediately noticed the foil wrapper had been torn away at the corner.

“Looks like St. Nick tried to eat this one himself,” they said, taking the candy bar away. At the time I didn’t understand that a mouse must have gotten into the stocking (or into the candy before it was distributed to our stockings). I thought it was pretty cheeky of St. Nick to be sampling our Nestle’s Crunch Bars (although I was very grateful to him for the magnet set he’d left me).

Sometime in the 1950s, Grandma Martha bought a cardboard fireplace and mantel. It was made of corrugated cardboard printed with red bricks, and on the chimney there was a Santa face with clock hands attached to his nose. The “fire” was cardboard flames with cutouts covered with red tissue paper. There was a contraption behind the flames consisting of a Christmas tree light bulb and a small tin propeller. The idea was the heat from the bulb would make the propeller spin, and that in turn would cause fluctuations in the light that would make the flames appear to be dancing. It didn’t work at all, but I didn’t care. That was the only “fireplace” we had in the East End house. When Grandma moved to her big gray house in Oakley, which did have a fireplace and a mantle, she passed the cardboard fireplace to us.

I know we used it at least one year, set up in the living room of our Oakley home (which also did not have a real fireplace, much to my exasperation; many of the houses on our street did have them). That year I finally got to hang my stocking up on St. Nicholas Eve on a real fireplace, or as close as I had ever come. Of course, our stockings were so heavy they pulled out the pin or thumbtack that held them to the cardboard mantel, so we came downstairs to discover our bulging stockings lying on their sides on the mantel. (That was the year I got an assortment of ten cent knickknacks from Woolworth’s, which didn’t help.)

The cardboard fireplace didn’t hold together well, and I don’t remember us putting it up much after that first year, if at all. Mom probably got tired of it and put it out for the trash one day. By then it was a stretch to imagine the fireplace was real anyhow.

I live in an apartment now, and I actually made myself a fake mantel out of an unpainted shelf, two supports I nailed together out of standard cut wood from the hardware store, and some old architectural details I’d bought on a whim. I really enjoy my little “fireplace.” I don’t even try to pretend its real; I simply decorate it for each season and enjoy the illusion.

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Note: The hanging pictured at the top of this post is from a design by Kindred Spirits. It combines rug hooking and wool crazy quilt section. As with all my projects, I didn’t plan this out ahead of time. Consequently, I kept running short of red and had to keep ripping sections out and working in other strips of wool in various degrees of red. It came out okay in the end. The hooked Santa now hangs over my mother’s piano each Christmas season.

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