A German au pair brings an old-world custom to an American family
by Angela York Crane
Sankt Nikolaus by Tesi, Germany
St Nicholas Center Collection
As a child, my family's Christmas was never about Santa Claus. The season was about the Advent wreath at our Catholic church, the empty crib on our carved wooden coffee table, slowly becoming full by the straw placed by our small hands as we looked for caring deeds to bestow on others in our family, and it was about what my mother called “the spirit of giving” represented by the symbol of Santa Claus whom we saw everywhere that time of year.
When my sons were small, St Nicholas came to us, brought across the waters by our German au pair and her gracious loving family. Early in December, when my sons were 2, 4, and 6, a large box arrived postmarked from Germany. Later that day, the phone rang and the mother of the daughter, who was helping to care for our sons, asked this mother a simple question—"Did you get the box of chocolate? And will you read the letter from St Nicholas to my daughter?"
"Yes, yes," I answered and then my questions started: "When is St. Nicholas Day? How do you celebrate? Can the boys be included?" And I learned the story of a kindly and tough ancient bishop, who gave gifts and much love to those around him. I learned how each year a letter from St. Nicholas comes, with many, many praises for all the wonderful attributes of each child, and then how the letter ends with a 'however.' And in that however, St Nicholas lets the child know what change can be worked on for the next year—the child’s gift back to St. Nicholas. And then, in a whirlwind of chocolate and saving the child from Krampus, who will surely take the bad children, St Nicholas carries on his message that there is an abundance of good in each child.
In our house, L reads the St Nicholas letter. And we deliver three bars of good dark chocolate and one or two books. But it is not the presents, or the anticipation of them, that causes even the older 15-year-old to squirm, that causes the eyes to light up and the face to flush when the pages are pulled out and the gift bags make their way to our living room. It is the words of blessing, and the request for change that causes time to slow, and hearts to join as we start the season of learning to give ourselves to the Light of the World. The Babe who was born into humanity.
This year, the house was a mess, the tree was stuck in a frozen bucket of water outside, and the boxes of ornaments and their treasures and wrappings were spilling themselves all over the floor and the sofa. Nevertheless, St Nicholas knew where to find us, and when L pulled out the pages, the 15, 13 and 11-year-old men/boys sat at attention to see what the wise old man would say this year. With their permission, I give you our very simple St Nicholas letter.
To the 15-year-old:
You are evolving into manhood as evidenced by having already surpassed the elevation of your humbled father. In addition to your physical transition, you have developed very good and mature social graces. Both of these developments, combined with your irresistible politeness, are making you a neighborhood treasure.
Your heart is also growing and it warms all who experience it.
You are doing well in school and taking more responsibility for completing the level of effort required of your challenging classes.
You once again worked hard and well through the demands of cross country this year which has helped you to develop a calmer, more adult demeanor.
You are taking care of more of your own needs and developing greater independence.
However, you have a strong desire to control the actions of others and sometimes this hurts. This year, I would like to see you use your big heart to overcome your need to control.
To the 13-year-old:
You are enjoying another year of meeting and making lots of friends at school. Even girlfriends!
You have shown yourself to be the fine example of a young gentleman when you are a guest in the home of others.
Your ability and courage to speak from truth to your father, has improved your relationship with him and helped him to learn to be a better parent.
While I know you can get very angry, it’s good you don’t hold grudges.
You continue to be very reliable in meeting your responsibilities to help out in your home.
Despite the fact that you do not like taking piano lessons, you have stuck with it, and practiced well to discover your unique talent for making music.
You have an incredible gift as a skilled debater.
However, this causes problems at home if to debate is your natural response to those things you do not want to here. You can develop the skill of restraint to allow your reasoned judgment to come through.
And finally the 11-year-old:
You really know how to have fun, play is a passion for you, and I enjoy hearing of your exploits.
You have no qualms about going outside to play with friends in the neighborhood, or leading the way to a neighbors as your parents lag behind.
I hear that sometimes you have amazing things to say. As if God were speaking through you.
You have chosen to join back into the traditional school setting and you are doing very well. You have shown maturity in the responsibility you have taken to get yourself ready for school.
You are the family trailblazer for retreats. You bravely go off for the weekend to be with many you’ve never met before. And you have taught your family much about nurturing community when you return.
You have also taken on new responsibilities within the family.
However, I would like to see you learn to address those responsibilities from the perspective of maturity rather than from the perspective of childhood. It is hard to learn to balance work and play, this year I think a good task for you would be to finish your work before you play. I don’t think you will ever forget to play!
And although I would like to say that we remembered to light the Advent wreath candles for this ceremony, and that it took place in a clean, beautifully decorated setting, and that afterwards we adjourned to a lavishly set table, with a feast of abundance for a fine dinner, I cannot tell that lie, or I know what my St Nicholas letter would state next year.
But in the midst of the chaos of unfinished decorating, and with the unlit Advent wreath cheering us on, we enjoyed a simple meal of homemade clam chowder, and, as has become the tradition for our St Nic feast day dinner, we read around the table, enjoying the novels which St Nicholas had gifted us.
Traditions give us the ability to be intentional about what we gift ourselves and our children. For me, I am grateful that my parents Christmas tradition was to frame this season as a time of giving and waiting. I am grateful that we shared a special year with a German au pair, who gifted us a tradition like St Nicholas Day; every year as we celebrate I remember that 19-year-old and her gift of love that she brought to us. And I am grateful for lovers and givers, may we all learn how to be both.
By Angela York Crane, from Living on Both Ends—an exploration of best and worst Used by permission.