Observed in Milwaukee for generations, the holiday has grown more popular in the past few years
By Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff
St Nicholas Center Collection
After living in Milwaukee for seven years, Norma Herbers thought she knew her way around this town pretty well. She could tell you what a bubbler was and where to get a good haircut. It was Dec. 6 that threw her for a loop.
"My son Andrew came home from kindergarten in tears," she said, recalling the incident 10 years ago. "He was sobbing. All the other kids had a visit from St. Nick that morning. He kept crying, 'Mom, why didn't he stop at our house?'"
Like the fish fry and frozen custard, the celebration of St. Nick's Day, though not exclusively a Milwaukee tradition, is especially strong here. Herbers had never heard of it. Tradition calls for children to hang their stockings or put out their shoes in the hopes that St. Nicholas will visit in the night, leaving a trinket or two for good children. Naughty kids will find a lump of coal or a switch instead.
The observance has been followed in Milwaukee for generations, and candy and toy retailers say the holiday has grown more popular in the past few years.
"It's stronger than ever," says Tom Stuhlmacher, co-owner of Winkie's variety store in Whitefish Bay, where Herbers stocks up on candy and small treats.
On the other side of town, St. Nick's business bubbles, too.
"The little monsters love it," says Geoff Hermsen, comptroller at Goldmann's Department Store on Milwaukee's south side. So does he. The holiday is terrific for business, especially candy and small toys.
"Their parents fill up their baskets with candy and little trinkets and away they go," Hermsen says.
Jason Grey, manager of Drew's Variety Store in Wauwatosa, puts signs around his store declaring it to be the city's "St. Nick's Headquarters." In truth, he says, the store doesn't even have to do that.
"It's more of a courtesy reminder to our customers," he says. "As much as we push it, we don't have to. This is one of our busiest weeks of the year, thanks to St. Nick."
When the economy is strong, as it has been for the past few years, stockings on St. Nick's Day are fatter, retailers say. Simple trinkets give way to fancier stocking stuffers, like videotapes and computer games. Pokemon cards, of course, are big. Beanie Babies are still popular, variety store managers report.
Laurie Schiltz, of Wauwatosa, grew up getting Life Savers and fruit. She gives her boys the same, plus a game or two. They share a holiday video.
"It's one of our busiest weeks," says Kay Nye, who works at the Chocolate Tree on Old World 3rd St. in Milwaukee's downtown.
Nye still packs up treats for her grown daughters and laughs about how they used to put out their father's shoes for maximum effect.
"In those days, he wore a size 13," she says. "Now he wears a 15."
They were busy last week making St. Nick treats at Ultimate Confections, too, a clerk at the Wauwatosa store says.
Like many ancient traditions, the history of St. Nick's is debated. Some say St. Nick's Day is a decidedly German observance. Others say it is Spanish or Dutch. What is known is that St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century. He was a Christian prelate and the patron saint of Russia. Nicholas was a native of Patara, in the ancient district of Lycia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). He became archbishop of the metropolitan church in Myra, Lycia.
How he came to be so famous is a little bit of a saucy tale, not suitable for tender ears. Legend has it that he took pity on a poor man who was about to abandon his daughters to—get the kids away from the newspaper—prostitution. The story goes that he left trinkets for the man in his chimney. From this came the custom of secret gifts on the eve of the feast day celebrating St. Nicholas. Because of the close proximity of dates, Christmas and St. Nicholas Day are now celebrated simultaneously in many countries.
Many parents love the Dec. 6 holiday for its simplicity. Others have more ulterior motives.
"It's a great way to coax good behavior out of them," says Laurie Gray, a Wauwatosa therapist who begins reminding her two boys in mid-November that St. Nicholas Day is creeping nearer.
"My mom still sends us treats, and the baby in the family is 30," says Gray.
Herbers, now the mother of six, is a savvy St. Nick's shopper these days. She has been ready for weeks with chocolate, fruit and books that she will tuck into their stockings tonight.
From the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, December 4, 1999. Used by permission.