It has been many years since I enjoyed St. Nicholas Day parties as a boy, and with this being St. Nicholas Day Eve, I started reminiscing about this exciting time that my family sadly no longer celebrates each year.
My mother’s side of the family is German, with a touch of French courtesy of my great grandmother who came from Alsace-Lorraine. They spoke a little German around the house, and I am left with a smattering of phrases I can still remember fondly like Das ist gut or Guten Morgen. One of my most cherished memories involves the day we called “Little Christmas,” which fell on December 6th each year, which is the feast day of St. Nicholas.
We would gather at my Mom’s sister’s apartment when I was small. Aunt Margie would have the tree decorated and small gifts spread on the table. There would be snacks served like nuts, raisins, chocolates, and cream wafers accompanied by tall glasses of milk. She would put on Christmas records; usually Bing Crosby, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra were the chosen artists, and the room was filled with music, warmth, laughter, and love.
In those days my grandfather sat in a chair in the corner and smoked his cigarettes and drank whiskey, thinking nothing of secondhand smoke because no one knew about that then. We would each take our turns opening the gifts. They were always toys, and that was why we were most excited. There was a guarantee of no disappointments like the shirt or scarf we would inevitably get stuck with on Christmas morning.
It was the same every year. One year I got an astronaut GI Joe, another year it was Johnny West, and then General Custer. Another year I got a few small cavalry soldiers. These action figures were always a prelude to the bigger and more desired toys on our Christmas lists that Santa was no doubt feverishly working on at that moment up at the North Pole, even on his feast day.
I did understand that Santa went by several names: St. Nick, Kris Kringle, and Santa Claus. These were all one and the same person, but on this night St. Nick was all that mattered. Once the toy opening frenzy was done, my grandfather would tell stories about St. Nicholas back in Germany. Of course, Pop was a confidant of the jolly old elf (as well as the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy).
Pop’s stories were sometimes a little scary, with St. Nick not coming down chimneys but through windows and doors. Instead of a jolly old elf, their was a bit of mischief in Pop’s version of the man. While he was ostensibly looking for children’s shoes to fill with small toys, candy, and chocolate, this St. Nick could get very angry. Each story featured his little malevolent streak, leaving coal in the shoes if a kid didn’t believe in him, sparking the rear end of bad kids, and giving a hot foot to misbehaving adults. It got me thinking that I better be good or I could not only miss out on toys but also get a little hot in my pajama bottoms.
We had this party every year even if it was a school night until my grandmother passed away. This is when Aunt Margie moved in with us to help my mother care for my father’s father. The parties shifted to our house for a time, but as we got older and lost the belief in the jolly old elf who came in a sleigh, they sadly ended.
I do recall this night with such happiness, as I do going to see Aunt Margie and getting hugs and kisses from her. She loved all her nieces and nephews so much, and though she never had children of her own, she was like a second mother to all of us. I remember her being filled with joy, so thrilled to see us happy and excited about the party. I have never been able to think of Christmas and not associate it with her, and though she is gone now, I still do because the “spirit” was surely in her and it was quite contagious.
Now that I am older, I am back in the fold and a believer again. I keep the tradition of Santa Claus alive with my children, and whenever I am asked if I believe in the man known as St. Nick, Kris Kringle, or Santa Claus, I remember the spirit of those “Little Christmas” parties at Aunt Margie’s house and I say, “Yes” because that spirit is transferred from generation to generation, and that spark I feel as I find that special toy for my kids is surely the proof that Santa Claus lives, as Francis P. Church once told little Virginia O’Hanlon so many years ago, “forever” and will always “make glad the heart of childhood.”
So this year I have decided we will have our own “little Christmas.” I will tell my children one of the stories my grandfather told (without scaring them like he scared me), give them little treats, and stoke the fire of their imaginations, preparing them for the Christmas morning to come when all their visions of gifts and more will be realized. After all these years, I think it’s about time this family recognized St. Nicholas again, for is he not the one who started it all?
Whether we realize it or not, after all this time he is inspiring us to emulate him year after year. Take a look in a mirror when you are in the store and putting yet another toy in your cart, and you just might get a glimpse of the jolly old elf dressed in your clothing. Happy St. Nicholas Day to all, and to all a Gute Nacht.