St. Nicholas, The Children’s Friend
A Belgian Tradition for December 6
by Ade Bethune
St. Nicholas was an important figure of my childhood in Belgium over sixty years ago. He was the children’s friend. On December 6, his feast day (not on Christmas), he brought toys and goodies.
First, you had to be good yourself. Be obedient. Listen. Tell the truth. Say your prayers. Ask permission. Say “please” and “thank you.” Say “Good morning” and “Good night.” Put your toys away in the evening. Drink your milk. Finish your food. Brush your teeth. Tie your shoe laces. Let your mother cut your fingernails. Put your shoes where you will find them in the morning. Also many don’ts. No quarreling with your big brother and sister. No hitting people. No breaking things. No whining. No stealing what is not yours. Respect the other children’s toys. Quite a program, both of good things to do and bad deeds to avoid.
Ideal children would do good things at all times. But in real life, a period of special effort is helpful. St. Nicholas’s coming provided just that. His gifts would show approval of my conduct.
What seemed like weeks ahead, advance notice was given and early preparations began. Every evening, our night prayer included a hymn in honor of St. Nicholas. There were three stanzas.
To be sure, every day conversation also centered on the great theme. On and on it went.
On the morning of December 5, the children were gathered at the foot of the stairs because some of the grownups thought they heard a sound coming down from the attic. We sang another song to welcome our friend and, no sooner was the song finished than a hail of tiny cookies rained down from above. Just a little sign that St. Nicholas was thinking of us! Just the encouragement we needed to live through the last twenty-four hours and keep our record high. Then, in the evening, a last fervent night prayer and hop into bed.
The next morning, an unbelievable vision of beauty was spread before our eyes. Presents were not wrapped in colored paper, but artistically displayed on the floor, at the foot of the coal stove, between a scattering of bright red apples, oranges, walnuts, hazelnuts, and St. Nicholas cookies. The presents were not marked (little ones don’t yet know how to read anyway), but instinctively my brother and sister and I knew which treasure was intended for each child.There were no presents for the grown-ups. This was a children’s feast. Grown-ups got their pleasure out of seeing the children’s joy, and possibly supplying some helpful hints about equitable sharing of apples, nuts and cookies. The rest of the holiday was very much like the American Christmas which in fact combines St. Nicholas’ Day and Jesus’ Birthday.
How did St. Nicholas come for me? Not on a sleigh with reindeer, but with a donkey carrying two saddle baskets of toys. Being a bishop, Nicholas wore a purple cope (a mantle) and on his head a mitre. In his left hand, he held a golden staff with a crook at the top, called a crozier. The crozier resembled the crook that a shepherd uses to round up his flock of sheep. After all, a bishop is a spiritual shepherd, not of sheep but of people.
In some rather marvelous way that could never quite be explained scientifically, St. Nicholas traveled over the snow-covered roofs of the city with his helper, Black Peter, and his faithful donkey. They dropped toys down the chimneys. Watch out though, naughty children received a switch. But to good children he gave good things.
One year, I may have been no more than five, I didn’t know how to avoid trouble. Perhaps because I tried too hard for reasons of childish “greed,” I did one naughty thing after another, and had to be scolded over and over. I feared that my standing with St. Nicholas was slipping fast. I panicked, which only resulted in worse behavior.
At noon, Grandfather came home for dinner from his office in the Court House on the other side of town. “Did you see St. Nicholas this morning, Grandpa?” Yes, he had seen St. Nicholas. “What did he say?” “He said you must try to be good, to love your family, to love God.” A beautiful program, but one that seemed almost unattainable.
St. Nicholas Eve was approaching. I had to be reprimanded for having knowingly scribbled over my brother’s drawing, defaced the wallpaper in the children’s room, hidden my sister’s doll, and refused to say I was sorry.
Mother took the opportunity to suggest a good idea. “How would it be if you went to the kitchen? We could prepare some carrots and potatoes for St. Nicholas’s donkey. Place them under the mantelpiece, and when St. Nicholas sees that you are kind to his donkey, he will think: “This is a good little girl; she offers a snack to my tired donkey.”
I received a piece of heavy brown paper, three carrots and two potatoes, and placed them in the cold fireplace in our chilly parlor.
People hardly ever went to the parlor. It was a small room at the front of the house, used only to receive visitors, and for the older children’s piano lessons. In a diminutive fireplace (the only one in the house) the landlord had installed an arrangement of imitation logs with tiny holes.
On special occasions the gas jet was opened and a lighted match placed to the pseudo logs. After an anxious moment, the whole thing went “Plouf!” and little blueish flames emerged from the holes. The heat it gave was minimal but the grown-ups accepted the whole performance, without apparent complaint. However, between you and me, we were all much more comfortable around the little glowing coal stove in the family room upstairs.
That night I went to bed somewhat dubious about those carrots and potatoes in the cold fireplace. The false logs did not seem right to me. But worst of all was the nagging feeling that the carrots were only a cover up. I had disfigured’myself by being sassy and had haughtily refused to say I was sorry. Still, I vaguely hoped that they donkey might plead for me.
The next morning, probably December 4, Mother asked if I had checked on the gifts to the donkey. With some misgivings I opened the parlor door. The carrots and potatoes were gone! But in their place, on the brown paper, was a small souvenir left by the donkey. Let me add that automobile trucks did not yet exist at the time; carts and wagons were horse or mule drawn and manure could be picked right off the street with a little shovel by anyone who could use it.
Whether the donkey’s gift meant that he was pleased with his snack, or that he thought my conduct stank, was not quite clear. Perhaps it was a combination of both.
Seeing my wonderment, Mother suggested I dispose of the brown paper and its contents, and then similarly regret my past offenses, ask the aggrieved parties to pardon me, and turn over a new leaf for the last two days.
You guessed it; I made a supreme effort; I asked pardon of those I had hurt; life opened up; things went well. I basked in the joy of a clear conscience. Yet I was not just “buying” a mercenary reward. It was good to be at peace with the family. Everything good and happy flowed from it.
On the morning of December 6, St. Nicholas Day, the children stood at the double doors of the family room, flung them wide open, and therein a glorious display around the little coal stove. There were the unexpectedly lovely toys, cheery red apples luminous oranges, mysterious nuts and cinnamon brown St. Nicholas cookies! A child’s version of heaven!
Ade Bethune was born in Belgium and came to the United States with her family at the age of 14 in 1928. She studied at art schools in New York City. She can be called a great matriarch of the Liturgical Movement. An artist, she produced pictures for various publications, blueprints for church renovations, stained glass designs, and drawings for Terra Sancta Guild bronzes. She holds five honorary degrees.
From Family Festivals, Winter 1981-1982, pp. 4-6, Resource Publications, Inc., Saratoga, CA. Used by permission.