This is an article I wrote for a local paper.
Normal service will be resumed shortly.
I've been ill and without a computer. Although back home and feeling much better,
I haven't got enough energy to come and visit all my lovely friends; it'll take me a while
to get round to all of you.
And there I was, hoping to collect enough stories, reminiscences and poems for another
Advent calendar for you and maybe reach four hundred followers by the end of this year.
Maybe next year.
Agios Nikolaos , better known as Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century bishop in Myra, now part of modern Turkey. Historically, there is very little more that is known of him, except that he is generally seen as a charitable man with a social conscience.
Legends however, abound. Nicolaos saves his home town from famine by miraculously providing grain; he saves three maidens from shame and ignominy by secretly leaving three pieces of gold in their hovel, while they sleep, thus providing them with a dowry. He saves sailors from a watery grave and leads a young man imprisoned in a distant country back to his homeland. His most famous legendary miracle is that he is said to have revived and reassembled three drunken students, who had been murdered, chopped up and pickled in a vat by an evil innkeeper. No wonder that Nicolaos became the patron saint of, among others, children, students, sailors, travelling merchants and apothecaries.
The feast day of St Nicholas falls on December 6th and is still celebrated in many western and eastern European countries; during the night of December 5th he arrives to bring gifts to the children of Germany.
These gifts had to have been earned, only ‘good’ children were the lucky recipients of Sankt Nikolaus’ presents. 'Nikolaus' was one of those saints, like St. Martin, whose feast days we children awaited with great excitement, but, in the case of the former, a modicum of uneasiness. No matter how good we may have been, there were always those disturbing memories of having been naughty at some time during the year since he last visited, which had caused parents or teachers to be displeased. Nikolaus had a golden book in which he carefully noted all our good and bad deeds, and even thoughts. Good children were rewarded with presents on Nikolaus Eve, but bad children were punished. Nikolaus had a special companion for the purpose, his servant Ruprecht; Ruprecht carried Nikolaus' heavy sack filled with presents but he also carried a switch made of birch twigs, with which he beat the air occasionally, making us hold on to mother if the switch whistled by too close for comfort.
During early Advent, father occasionally brought sweets or some biscuits home after work. "I saw Nikolaus today and he let me take these from his basket". I thought that was a good sign; we children believed every word adults uttered.
We were also busy writing wish lists for Nikolaus. Times were still very hard and presents were not then taken for granted, as they are now. Our requests were modest compared to today’s. A wooden toy, perhaps a rag doll, sweets and biscuits, nuts and fruit and a picture book or two, those are the presents I remember. I never had to wear wooden clogs, like my father did as a boy, but I had a pair just for Nikolaus Day, because they were the appropriate receptacle for Nikolaus' gifts in the Lower Rhineland.
Until we were able to travel again to family living in other villages and celebrate the day with my cousins, Sankt Nikolaus didn’t come to me in person. “He has to visit too many other children to make time to come here, he may not come at all”, mother said. Obviously, I was very disappointed but also just a little relieved; my conscience was never totally clear. As the evening progressed, the atmosphere in the kitchen, where I was sitting with my back to the large, old-fashioned range, with a picture or colouring book, grew quiet, with a slight tingle of tension in the air. I kept my head down firmly over my book, all the time listening for sounds from outside.
The noise, when it came, did not come from outside, but from right behind me. With a great clatter a wooden toy, a tin of hard boiled sweets and toffees, apples and gingerbread biscuits came flying into the room. Sankt Nikolaus had thrown all these goodies down the chimney for me and they had survived coming down into the kitchen via the big black stove pipe and the fire in the range. It was a wonder mother hadn’t been hit because she was standing right there, in the way. On the other hand, it was good that she was standing there because she said she had heard Sankt Nikolaus shout down the chimney that he might come again, later in the night, on his way back home and if he had anything left in his sack he’d put it into my clogs, if I left them out for him. Which I did, naturally, just in case. And Sankt Nikolaus was as good as his word: in the morning I found that he had left me a book and a teddy bear and more sweets and sticky gingerbread and apples than could fit into my clogs!
One particular year, before I outgrew my belief in Nikolaus, we spent the feast day at my aunt Johanna’s house; my cousin Dieter was the same age as me, about six or seven. He and I had been told to get ready for a visit from Nikolaus and that he would expect us to sing a song or recite a poem. That wasn’t a problem, every child knew the traditional songs and poems; the problem was, would our nerve hold? Dieter opted for a song, which meant I had to recite a poem. I remember it well “Von drauss vom Walde komm ich her. . . . . .” We practiced all afternoon.
When male members of the family, disguised with beard and in appropriate costume, i.e., a magnificent coat with a deep hood and boots for Sankt Nikolaus and all enveloping dark rags for the Servant Ruprecht, roughly knocked on the door and demanded entry, many a child’s heart beat furiously, fearfully remembering a small lie, a naughty deed or a hidden shame. December’s early darkness fell, but before the lights in the cold, outer hallway could be lit, my older cousin Helga rushed into the kitchen, shouting “ Nikolaus is on his way, he’s already been next door, he’ll be here any minute.”
Both Dieter and I went into hiding. But it wasn’t any good, we had to come out; there was Nikolaus and although he sounded gruff and a little hoarse, he looked quite kindly on us. Dieter croaked a verse of his song and I managed to stumble through the first two lines of the poem which I knew off by heart, before I gave up. Nikolaus then asked “What do you say, have you been good children? Do you think you deserve a present?”
Quick as a flash my cousin Dieter said: “I have, but Ursula hasn’t. She always spits at me.”
I couldn’t let him get away with that. I said: “ Dieter does it too, he spits first.”
Nikolaus appeared to have been overcome with emotion at that, as evidenced by his heaving shoulders; we both got away with it.
I am glad to say that the custom of frightening children with the spectre of a vengeful Knecht (Servant) Ruprecht ended during my childhood. It was usually my uncle who dressed up as Nikolaus and it didn't take us children long to work it out for ourselves. Knecht Ruprecht was said to be waiting outside by the sleigh, but the adults gave up the pretence of even that.