Families keep St. Nicholas holiday simple, give back

St. Nicholas is a real historic figure, a 4th Century Catholic bishop remembered for serving the poor and as the patron saint of children

by Karyn Saemann

Wisconsin families traditions reflect their varying ethnic backgrounds — German, Swiss, Dutch — continuing for generations.

For some local families, a glimpse of Christmas comes early in December.

Local families that celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 say it's about small gifts, being together and spreading goodwill.

He typically visits on the evening of Dec. 5, bringing candy and other treats and small gifts to children.

Local families said they've carried the tradition down from parents and grandparents, many of whom were immigrants from Europe where the Feast of St. Nicholas remains widely observed. It is not an official holiday in the United States.

Erin-Ehlert Maddocks, who grew up in Racine and now lives in Cambridge, said her family background is a mix of German, Scandinavian "and a bit of Irish."

As a child, she and her sisters, and sometimes cousins, would spend the night at their grandmother's house on Dec. 5, waking up to find shoes filled with oranges, nuts, chocolate and candy canes.

Ehlert-Maddocks said her first husband, who passed away six years ago, was German and also grew up celebrating St. Nicholas Day. The two continued the tradition with their three children, and that has carried on to a fourth child born to Ehlert-Maddocks and her current husband.

Simple gifts and candy from St. Nicholas
Photo: Erin Ehlert-Maddocks

Gifts for their children are "simple," Ehlert-Maddocks said, typically chocolate, books, small toys and art supplies and maybe pajamas.

"I had such great memories of growing up and doing this," Ehlert-Maddocks said. "I wanted to share this with my kids, to have that magic, that excitement. I hope when they have children they pass it on. They can say 'this is what my family did together.'"

Photo: Erin Ehlert-Maddocks

Tessa Dunnington, of Deerfield, said when she was a child St. Nicholas filled stockings, not shoes.

"There was always fresh fruit, a gigantic orange and a huge apple, and there were always pistachios, and candy and sometimes a trinket or two," recalls Dunnington, whose parents were from the Milwaukee area, and of German, Polish and Latvian descent.

The stocking tradition has carried on with her two children.

"We put them out the night before, and there are goodies in them the next morning," Dunnington said.

St. Nicholas Day, "is part of where we came from, and I don't like when traditions die," Dunnington said. "I think they make each family unique."

Peggy Sundquist, of Cambridge, recalls as a child the ringing of a doorbell every St. Nicholas Day.

"We would all run to the door and there would be little packages outside from St. Nick," she recalls.

Sundquist, who is of Dutch and German descent, said when her daughter, now 19, was born they had wooden shoes made in the Netherlands that their family continues today to put out for St. Nicholas.

Wooden shoes from the Netherlands
Photo: Peggy Sundquist

Sundquist said they incorporated a twist that she learned about while living in Switzerland. Every year, she said, family members receive small gifts, fruit and nuts but also a letter sharing how their behavior has been in the past year and if it needs improvement before Christmas. If recent behavior has been particularly bad, the letter is accompanied by an onion or a charcoal briquette.

Sundquist said St. Nicholas "always leaves pomegranate for me." And the entire family gets chocolate lady bugs, which she said in Switzerland and Germany are a sign of good luck.

Sundquist called St. Nicholas Day "a precursor to the holiday season. It gets you excited for Christmas."

"It's a fun family time before the holidays get crazy," she said.

Jane Holland, of Deerfield, said her family, of European descent, also marked St. Nicholas Day when she was a child.

With seven children, she recalls that one treasured treat left in their sacks were store-bought cookies. There were also nuts and apples, she recalls.

Holland said for her children, the day became a time to get ready for Christmas, with cookie sprinkles, cookie cutters, Advent calendars "and maybe a Christmas movie," left by St. Nicholas.

Today, Holland said St. Nicholas still visits her children, now in their 20s and 30s.

And for some local families, there's a service element to the day.

Jamie Doyle, of Deerfield, grew up in a Catholic family of Dutch and German heritage in Milwaukee and attended parochial school. At school, she said she learned about the historical figure that St. Nicholas Day is based on.

There were stockings filled with chocolate coins, candy canes, an orange and Avon jewelry on St. Nicholas Day, but it was clear, she said, this was not Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas, "was a saint in our religion," she said.

Doyle said she recalls making cards at school on St. Nicholas Day for nursing home residents and nuns who lived at an adjacent convent, and did other volunteer service on that day, with the emphasis on giving, not getting. She recalls "the priest talking about the significance of St. Nicholas helping the poor."

Gifts purchased for others with $ from St. Nicholas
Photo: Diana Barber

Deerfield Middle School teacher Diana Barber, who lives in Ixonia, has taken that idea of St. Nicholas Day being a day to give back one step further.

Barber, who grew up in Waukesha and celebrated St. Nicholas Day as a child, said her two sons, ages 10 and 7, get in addition to candy, an Advent calendar and books and other small toys. But they also receive $20 from St. Nicholas each year and a handwritten note reminding them that this is a season of giving.

They spend that $20 in a way of their choosing, that helps others.

"We call it 'pay it forward gifts.' I love the idea, that (St. Nicholas) was a philanthropist," Barber said. "We need kindness in this world."

Over the years, she said her sons have given to the humane society and bought presents for needy families.

"For us, it's turned into this idea of serving," Barber said. "That's the tradition we've started for our boys and I hope that they carry it on. 'It's not what I get, it's what I give.' Our kids are growing up in an entitled generation and I want to be a contributor to breaking that."

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By Karyn Saemann, Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent, December 2, 2020, permission pending.

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