December 6th is St Nicholas Day, a celebration which was a big part of my early childhood and meets with mostly blank looks when I mention it to friends here in the UK. My early years were spent in rural Switzerland, and my early memories of the Christmas season are very much from that part of the world. St Nick of course is the pattern for Father Christmas, but in much of Europe his celebration is separated out from Christmas itself.
I recall St Nicholas Day parades, when St Nick, in full regalia, was carried through the town on a horse or donkey-drawn cart, throwing out wonderful gingerbread cakes to the children. I can almost taste them now!
On the night of December the 5th, children leave their shoes (preferably nicely polished!) out on the step for St Nicholas. He comes and fills the shoes of the good little children with sweets and small toys and knick-nacks (I remember getting a French knitting loom in the form of a soldier, one year). There are variations in the tradition, of course, depending on where you are in the world, but generally St Nicholas has a not very nice sidekick, known as ‘Père Fouettard’ (roughly translated, ‘Father Whip’) or Black Peter (with a blacked-up face which is either very un-PC, or has been retro-fixed to describe him as a chimney sweep!), in the part of the world I was in, but he comes with different names and identities in different places.
If you read up on this on Wikipedia, you’ll find it asserted that although St Nick’s nasty sidekick is supposed to bring punishment, or at least make sure that St Nick doesn’t bring gifts to the bad little children, this is some sort of an empty threat, and of course all the children get gifts. Well, I remember vividly at my Swiss infants’ school (and I’m not so *very* old), that while the rest of us got sweets and chocolates, Black Pete brought only a piece of coal to the ‘bad’ child in the class. Imagine that, these days?
I’m trying to write a post a day during Advent, so, please come along with me while I try to Blog Advent – the Country Skills Way – and forgive me if I don’t quite manage it!
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