St. Nick fills stockings with candy. Or shoes with oranges. Or rides a moose.

For Milwaukee families, the traditions vary.

by Amy Schwabe
Postcard: Lutz Mauder, Germany

Growing up on the south side of Milwaukee, I celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas — or, as anyone who celebrates the feast day calls it, St. Nick's.

Every Dec. 5, my sister and I would go to bed with almost as much excitement as on Christmas Eve, and we would wake up way too early and run downstairs to see what St. Nick had left in our stockings.

Then, we would head off to our Catholic school, where we would find that St. Nick had also snuck into our classrooms during the night, leaving candy canes and pencils on our desks. At recess, all the playground talk revolved around comparisons of the loot in our stockings, and we would go home in the afternoon to gorge ourselves on red and green M&Ms, and try to crack the walnuts that we had only once a year. (I will admit, the oranges usually stayed at the bottom of our stockings to rot.)

My husband, who also grew up on the south side of Milwaukee, had similar stories to share with me when we met, and when we got married and started our own family, we inevitably continued the tradition, and our own daughters look forward to the holiday as much as we did.

So, when I started working at the Journal Sentinel, you can imagine how shocked I was to find out that St. Nick's isn't a thing everywhere. It's not even a thing everywhere in Wisconsin.

Kathie Devlin, who also celebrated St. Nick's growing up in West Allis, discovered that St. Nick's Day wasn't a thing for everyone long before I did. "When I was in grade school at St Aloysius, we went around to all the different classrooms to learn how different countries celebrated," she said. She learned about Dutch people leaving out their wooden shoes, that oranges are a popular treat because they represent the gold St. Nicholas gave away when he became a bishop. And she learned that in the United States, the celebration of St. Nick's is a very German holiday, which is predominantly celebrated in cities with an especially German population — like Milwaukee.

When I asked other Milwaukee-area parents how they celebrate the day, I got peppered with a lot of happy childhood memories of stockings full of oranges, candy, nuts and little toys. And I heard from parents who got married to spouses who weren't from around here, and, although baffled by their significant others' enthusiasm for the "holiday," agreed to play along for their own children.

I also learned that, although there are certain commonalities in the way the holiday is celebrated, each family has its own twists and quirks in its traditions.

St. Nick is flexible

Full disclosure: I was well-acquainted with St. Nick's flexibility even before talking to other families. My own daughters, upon getting old enough to go to school, balked at the idea of waking up on St. Nick's morning, unloading a stocking full of treats and then having to leave them behind so they could go to school. When Dec. 6 falls on a school day, they've politely asked St. Nick to deliver their goodies the weekend before his actual feast day so they can eat their candy and play with their toys all day to their hearts' content. And St. Nick has kindly complied.

Just as he has for other families.

"My husband starts work at 6 in the morning, so he's always gone by the time the kids get up," said Jamie Gray, mom to two daughters. "So, if Dec. 6 falls during the week, our St. Nick will make an early appearance, and I'll tell the girls, 'Oh, I guess he just knew it was a school day so he came early!'"

The receptacle varies

The original tradition is that St. Nicholas would leave treats in the children's shoes or socks that were left by the fire. That tradition has evolved into buying or making stockings especially for the occasion, which seems to be what most families do.

Some families still do the shoe thing, though. Doug Bertrand, who grew up in Green Bay and now lives in Merton with his family, said, "The kids put their shoes by the fireplace at night, and there's an apple in one and an orange in the other when they wake up."

Although his own kids enjoy leaving their shoes out, when he and his siblings were younger, their loot was delivered differently — in a big brown grocery store bag (which admittedly holds more).

Kids look forward to specific stocking-stuffers

Interestingly, even though the trinkets and treats brought by St. Nick are different depending on the family, those stocking-stuffers are not something that can be altered. So St. Nick had better remember what he brings each family because the kids depend on the same things every year.

"My brother and sister and I had apples and oranges in our grocery store bags, plus magazines," said Bertrand. "And, always, we had the big giant plastic candy canes filled with red and green M&Ms."

Bertrand's own kids, who are now 6 and 9, get just one apple and orange each, plus a few wooden toys, and they also look forward to the candy-filled plastic candy canes every year — although the Bertrand boys prefer Skittles in theirs.

The story behind the tradition differs

For families who celebrate St. Nick's, the explanation for his yearly visit usually relates to Christmas in some way. After all, St. Nicholas is basically Santa Claus, right?

My own kids see the festivities of St. Nick's as a great way to temper the long wait for Christmas Eve, a sentiment that was echoed over and over by the families I talked to who said their kids love that the tradition is the start of the holiday season.

And, for some families, it's even more related to Christmas than that.

"When my kids asked who St. Nick is and why he comes each year, I told them it's Santa Claus doing a dry run before Christmas, for all those kids who just moved or he's not quite sure how their chimneys work," Bertrand said. Oh, and for the Bertrand family, St. Nick doesn't do the reindeer and sleigh thing because that's just for Christmas Eve. "He wears a big green suit and rides a moose," Bertrand said, laughing.

Another Christmas tradition that's related to St. Nick for some families? Elf on the Shelf. "For my kids, our elf on the shelf arrives with St. Nick," said Gray. "Her name is Ellie, and the kids are always so excited that St. Nick brings her. She stays at our house and then goes back to the North Pole with Santa on Christmas Eve."

Whatever St. Nick brings, however he arrives and whatever receptacle he chooses to fill with treats, Milwaukee-area families who celebrate his feast day are universally on-board with continuing the tradition. "Every year, my son looks forward to St. Nick's even more than Christmas," Devlin said. "I think it's because it's just the start of all the excitement of the Christmas season for him."

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

By Amy Schwabe, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 5, 2018. Permission pending.

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