Happy St. Nicholas Day!
Dec. 6 has always been a magic date in my family's Christmas season. Growing up in the German Catholic Rhineland, my two brothers and I would never fail to put our boots outside our front door on the evening of Dec. 5, Nikolausabend (Nicholas' Eve). The next morning we'd scramble out of bed and, still in our pyjamas, hurry to find what St. Nicholas had left inside the boots. There would be the regular St. Nicholas staples of walnuts, clementine oranges, and Spekulatius windmill cookies, along with some of the popular local seasonal goodies such as Printen, Dominosteine, and Marzipan potatoes. Mixed in might also be a little toy or a little book, or some other small item that fit into the boot.
In Schwester Ludfrieda's Kindergarten (preschool), the annual visit of the tall bearded bishop (and sometimes his not-so-benevolent sidekick, Knecht Ruprecht) was always a grand affair to which the parents were invited. It included the singing of many songs but, most importantly, of the "Lustig, lustig, tralaralala" Nicholas song we'd all belt out with great joy. Some of us would play our recorders or recite a short poem in the saint's honor. Until, finally, the saint himself would make his grand and imposing entrance. But as he started reading from his big book how naughty or nice we had been this past year, I couldn't help noticing that his voice sounded awfully familiar. Wasn't that ..., no, it couldn't be ... yes, it was... Finally, little Meiny could hold back no longer and yelled out in front of the whole big assembly: "That's not Sankt Nikolaus, that's Herr Kaiser from the electrical store." And right I was, too!
My wife and I have continued the St. Nikolaus traditions with our own children. When they were in kindergarten and later in their German classes, we shared St. Nicholas' story and traditions with their classmates. And even now that they are away at college, St. Nicholas is still scheduled to make a stop-over at their apartment today (with a little help from his friends on the FedEx truck).
Over the past 10 years or so I've been recruited to play St. Nicholas for a group of kids who are learning German in a local parent initiative called Kinderwerkstatt. The way the group has arranged the visit, before I enter the stage to the singing of "Lustig, lustig, tralaralala," I am handed a big folder with write-ups from each of the kids' parents. St. Nicholas then proceeds to publicly applaud potty-training heroics and admonish siblings to tone down their rivalries, to reinforce good study habits, celebrate soccer feats, and of course, you guessed it, urge all the kids to listen to their parents more! I then hand everyone a bag of goodies. Despite some awkward moments and one or two kids being completely intimidated by the whole affair, overall the spirit of the third-century bishop saint of Turkish Myra still always manages to shine through and to continue to encourage generosity, charity, and love among the next generation.
Seems reason enough today to be "froh und munter" (joyful and happy) and to sing out "lustig, lustig, tralaralala." Happy St. Nicholas Day!
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