dec 6th: riddle me this, st. nicholas
December the 6th is the Feast of St. Nicholas, which makes December the 5th “The Eve of St. Nick”. As a child growing up in a Catholic home, we celebrated this holiday by leaving our socks out(usually one of dad’s socks, as we naively believed the sock size would ultimately determine the gift size) to be filled with a small treat while we slept. At St. Luke’s parish school the next day, all our classmates would pull various goodies out of their backpacks, which they’d received that morning. It was a sweet, simple little tradition which allowed us to focus on the true story of the generous bishop St. Nicholas, thereby setting Christmas aside for Jesus. I vaguely remembered that he’d been a wealthy, but pious, young man who’d been raised by a priest. He did good works for the poor, like saving 3 destitute maidens from slavery by leaving bags of gold by the fire to serve as their necessary dowries. There were some other things, like him being the Patron Saint of sailors, children, and those wrongly condemned. Only recently, while brushing up a bit on St. Nicholas lore, did I encounter the true crazy that is St. Nicholas Day in some cultures. It is a feast of contradictions, variations, and enigmas.
“What about St. Nicholas is enigmatic?” you might be wondering. “Oh, dear reader, what about St. Nicholas is NOT enigmatic?!” I counter.
While taking a short detour to stnicholascenter.org a few days ago, I came upon several, nay, SEVERAL things I did not previously know about this beloved saint and the celebration of his feast day. For starters, the St. Nicholas Center has an entire page dedicated to the supposed traveling companions of St. Nicholas. He rides on a white horse- or leads a donkey laden with treat-filled baskets. He is accompanied by helpful angels- or the devil, who is thankfully subdued by chains. He brings his faithful and jester-like servant “Ruprecht”- or the murderous butcher Pere Fouettard.
And speaking of this murderous butcher. As I was putting the boys to bed on the Eve of St. Nick, I brought in the laptop(having misplaced my saint books) to read them the story of St. Nicholas and show them some illustrations. What I began, in good faith, to read to them, ended up being this story right here. This one. Please, PLEASE read it.
Done? Okay. It looks innocent enough on the first page, right? A little folklorish, perhaps, but it’s alright? No my friends. It is far from alright. F-A-R.
So of course after reading a few pages into this, and halting accordingly, the boys demanded to know how it ended. I clicked ahead to the end and attempted a false laugh about cultural differences, etc… That is when I interrupted their terror to tell them about the carrot.
Apparently it is Dutch tradition to not only leave carrot peelings in your shoes for St. Nicholas’ white horse(or donkey, or Satan-slave) but to give the delightful gift of a pen nestled in a hollowed-out carrot. Other suggested gifts also include presents wrapped in fantastically deceptive ways, or something small nestled inside multiple boxes. FUN! Having taken the boys’ minds off salt tubs full of children remains, I suggested that next year we might make clever riddle-gifts a new tradition of ours. Then I gave them all extra hugs and kisses and put some snicker bars in their shoes.
This year give someone a pen in a carrot. Tell them you won’t elaborate on it, and that that is a gift in and of itself, dammit.