As the years go by, I find I have largely forgotten many of the old traditions my Mother kept alive for her children. Yet I have remembered St. Nicholas Day on December 6 for ever...and I believe it was because my Mother, by her awesome storytelling ability, ingrained this one very deeply within me.
December 6 was more fun for me than Christmas. Perhaps it was because it began the Christmas season and the lovely attendant anticipation, way back when I was small.
My mother would begin by reminding me that St. Nicholas was on his way, about two weeks before the actual date. She would tell me our home would have to be sparkling clean...and that included my room.
I was notorious for stuffing clothing, books, shoes and toys under my bed. This was the one time of the year when I made sure to drag each item out from under the bed and put them in their proper place. I recall so well feeling as if St. Nicholas was in the room with me...I did not dare shirk my duties.
My mother told me I had to polish my shoes. As a young child, I was not sure how to go about polishing shoes. And I remember dowsing my patent leather shoes in a tub of water, because I thought this was the way to make sure they were really clean. It took days for them to dry out; the patent leather was not ever the same.
I was terribly afraid these shoes, almost brand new and bought for the Christmas season, would end up with a piece of coal in them rather than the goodies I had received in previous years.
You see, on St. Nicholas Day, those same shoes, clean and now a little cracked, would be placed on the window sill. I would draw a picture for St. Nick and put it in one of the shoes...and in the other shoe was my list for Christmas. And there was a plate of carrots for St. Nicholas' white Horse.
But it was not only clean shoes and a clean house St. Nicholas looked for, when he travelled from home to home. He apparently, my mother told me, had a very large Book in which all children's behaviour, good and bad, had been chronicled, never to be forgotten.
I couldn't begin to imagine it. But I wanted that Book. A budding writer and voracious reader even so long ago, I thought that Book St. Nicholas had would give me years of enjoyment, as long as I did not look up my name. Even now, my heart races a little at the thought I might ever find the tell-all Book...and my name.
It was all I thought about. I visualized St. Nicholas leading his Horse through the Snow, holding tight to The Book. And when he came to a house, he would open it wide, and find the resident child's name. Depending on that child's behaviour, he would either place a piece of coal in the shoe or he would fill it with amazing chocolate goodies.
I would bother my mother, possibly non-stop, about The Book. Was her name in it? Yes, she replied. Had she ever received any coal? Perhaps, she would say...she couldn't quite remember. But she had once had a friend who received coal year after year!
My eyes as wide as saucers, I clamoured to know more about my mother's friend. Why did she receive coal year after year? Well, my mother explained, she just could not be good. She could not remember her manners, she wore stained and dirty clothing (to my mother, cleanliness was next to godliness) and her shoes were forever covered in mud!
Well. Upon hearing the news about this unfortunate girl, I wandered away to digest what I had heard. Then, as well as now, I needed time to think...to run through all the scenarios in my mind...to come up with more questions for my beleaguered Mother.
Hmmm. I remembered how my shoes could get covered in mud...sometimes even my socks! And my clothing could certainly get stained and dirty. My manners were not all that great, either. I was shy and quiet...greetings to other people were not my strong point...I'd hide behind my mother, mostly.
I had some fearful thoughts that my name would have that black mark against it, in St. Nicholas' Book.
I went back to my mother. What if, I said with great anxiety, what if my name had a black mark against it?
My mother did not let me off the hook. She said, We'll have to wait and see.
Her answer kept me very good...I outdid myself in keeping clean, remembering my manners, staying out of mud...
That is, until St. Nicholas arrived and filled those pretty, patent leather shoes to the brim with the much coveted chocolate. There was nary a lump of coal to be found!
I stayed good for a week or two, after December 6, but my memory for continuing that goodness faded after awhile, and I went back to wallowing in the mud.
The whole scenario happened again when the Christmas season began, shortly after St. Nicholas Day. Santa Claus, according to my mother, also wanted children to be good.
But for me, Santa never had the same clout as St. Nicholas...he only kept a list. He didn't have that big, black Book.
The tradition faded as I grew older. I tried to implement it with my children, but they were far more sophisticated than I...they knew inherently they would receive candy in their shoes.
Black Book or no.
Note: The top photo is me at the approximate age of three with Santa Claus.