In Milwaukee, St. Nick leaves keepsake ornaments, writes letters and even visits schools

by Amy Schwabe

Photo: Jess Koerner

As a child growing up in Southeast Wisconsin, Heather Grams thought St. Nick's Day was a holiday every child celebrated.

After all, her friends and classmates were just like her and her siblings, getting up early on the morning of Dec. 6 to see what St. Nick had left in their stockings, then going off to school to share the exciting news.

Then she grew up and moved away. She's lived in Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia, and the only people she came across who celebrated the mini-holiday were other people who came from the Midwest.

"It's definitely a Midwest thing," said Grams. "When we lived in other states, my daughter would come home confused because she'd ask other kids what they got in their stockings and they didn't know what she was talking about."

Celebrating St. Nick at school

Photo: Heather Grams

Now that Grams, who is principal at St. Sebastian school in Milwaukee, has returned to Wisconsin, she's back among people who get excited for St. Nick's day — including her students.

"We explain to the kids how the name Santa Claus actually came from St. Nicholas, and that's why we celebrate his feast day," said Grams. "And we also tell the kids on St. Nick's Day that if we hear any bells or see any signs that he's come to school, we'll let them know."

The anticipation of St. Nick's visit is why the students at St. Sebastian leave their shoes out in the hallway every Dec. 6. In Europe, where the St. Nick traditions originated, it's customary to leave shoes or stockings for St. Nick to fill with treats such as oranges, chocolate coins and candy canes.

When the shoes are in their places in the hall, and the kids are in their places in their classrooms, St. Nick has some help putting candy canes in the shoes from an unlikely source — student council members.

"The seventh and eighth grade students help out by filling the shoes when the doors are closed," said Grams. "There are windows on the doors though, so basically you have kids army crawling through the hallways so they're not seen."

Reminders to be kind and generous on St. Nick's Day

Photo: Jess Koerner

Although many families hang stockings on their mantels, quite a few still embrace the more old-school shoes.

Wauwatosa mom Jess Koerner's two daughters put out wooden shoes by the fireplace on the evening of Dec. 5, and they also receive glass-blown ornaments that are reminiscent of an old world German Christmas.

Like the students at St. Sebastian, the Koerner children also learn the legend of St. Nick, especially about his generosity and kindness.

"St. Nick is kind of like the Robin Hood of saints, giving gifts to the poor," said Koerner. "It's a nice way to kick off the craziness of the holiday season and keep in mind the importance of being kind and humble."

St. Nick gives those reminders to the Koerner children in letters he leaves them alongside chocolate coins, oranges and ornaments.

Celebrating St. Nick's Day with meaningful ornaments

The annual ornament is important for 14-year-old Norah Doyle and 11-year-old William Doyle from Greendale as well, although St. Nick leaves their treats in stockings their mother, Kelly Metzelfeld, has made for them.

Metzelfeld said her children's favorite tradition is to get a milestone ornament in their stockings — an ornament that somehow relates to something important that happened during the year.

"When Norah was 7 years old, she had asked for an iPod for Christmas, so her St. Nick ornament was a bear with headphones holding what looked like an iPod," Metzelfeld said.

Photo: Kelly Metzelfeld

Then, right before Halloween, Norah broke her arm and was in a cast for four months. Metzelfeld helped out St. Nick by personalizing the ornament even more and crafting a cast for the bear's arm.

"Every year around this time, Norah starts trying to guess what her ornament is going to be," Metzelfeld said, laughing.

The ornaments have also commemorated milestones such as the year the kids have gotten braces, taken their first steps and had their first Starbucks drink.

For William, who has autism and Down Syndrome, some of those ornaments have been particularly meaningful.

"The ornament celebrating his first steps was a huge deal because that was when he was 6 years old," said Metzelfeld. "And he also got a xylophone ornament because music is a huge motivator for him when he's communicating with us on his picture exchange communication system."

St. Nick's plan, of course, is to provide the Doyle children with their own collection of ornaments for when they grow up, and to remember what was important to them each year of their childhoods.

"It's just such a fun tradition," Metzelfeld said.

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St. Nick Who? And Why Are Milwaukeeans Celebrating Him?

By Amy Schwabe, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dec. 3, 2019. Permission pending.

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