by Gertrud Mueller Nelson
In one parish where we lived briefly, we introduced the idea of secret giving to a group of teenagers in a parish youth club. It was already their tradition to collect groceries as Thanksgiving donations from the parishioners. They had always first sorted these into boxes and then made the deliveries during early December to addresses supplied by the local social services. It was awkward, their delivery to these needy families, standing about to give explanations and to accept thank-yous. This time, however, they would each take their deliveries and in groups of two go off and invent ways of making the deliveries anonymously. After what proved to be a series of great adventures, they collected again at the church hall. They were beside themselves with excitement and delight as each duo told the others of their adventures and their creative solutions to the mysterious deliveries. No one had been seen or found out and several had hidden themselves in bushes to experience the reactions of those who came to the door. Suddenly the "dark deeds of the night" had taken a new twist. Not getting caught and the deeds that involved sneaking about could also be benevolent actions. it seemed to fill a basic mischievous bent in the youngsters and it made me wonder if taking serious responsibility for "being a little Nicholas" could lower the incidents of dark and harmful actions.
An Evening With St. Nicholas
Postcard, the Netherlands
photo: Benelux Press
St Nicholas Center Collection
The Nicholas legends are great to tell children and give the material to create little plays and opportunity for celebration. in our community, we have taken to celebrating St. Nicholas day on December 6 or a day near it. It gives all of us, young and old, the opportunity to hear the stories of his deeds and to set the tone for our communal Advent. We gather in candlelight and before our parish Advent wreath. The program sometimes has the children put on a play depicting one of the legends; at other times it is the fathers of the community who become the storytellers. Since St. Nicholas day is a sort of father's day, we point up the theme of fathering. Fathers choose which miracle story they want to tell and come forward with their individual storytelling talents. Another follows up with a reading from Scripture which tells of a parallel miracle or lesson. in between, the community sings even, Advent hymn and Advent round we know. For years, a retired priest, who was part of the community until his death, was delightful and dignified as a Nicholas in paper mitre and bedspread robe. His bishop's mitre and crook gave the children, who have never seen a bishop, an idea of what a bishop might look like in his official, fatherly capacity. A homily on fatherhood, on leadership versus authority, or on the nature of our Advent preparations is then directed to us all, no matter our age. All around the altar are baskets full of traditional Nicholas men—fragrant spice cookie bishops with pointed mitre hats and beards which the families have baked and contributed to the feast that follows. In solemn procession we all receive our Nicholas cookie and recess to the back room for apple juice and festive fellowship. Collecting the parish family or a group of friends to celebrate St. Nicholas day with you and your family extends the tradition making to a larger circle and tends support to those who want to enrich their Santa Claus.
Here is a recipe for a traditional Nicholas cookie that comes out of the Rhineland. The cookie is called Speculatius which means "image." In Europe, the "image" is the mirror-image of a Nicholas which had been pressed into a wooden mold and then turned out on a sheet to bake in the oven. As we don't have these molds, we roll out the dough and use a cardboard pattern (about 7" tall) of a gingerbread bishop to cut around for the basic shape and everyone further decorates it as the imagination dictates.
For presentation at the celebration, each family tied up their Nicholas cookies into individual plastic bags and tied the tops with a ribbon and brought them in festive baskets to place around the altar.
Excerpt from To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration by Gertrud Mueller Nelson, pp. 88, 89. Copyright © 1986 Paulist Press. Used with permission.
This classic book has good background for developing Nicholas and other traditions and a nice re-telling of four St. Nicholas legends with suggestions for creating plays. Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.