St. Nicholas Day, Past and Present
The first snow comes in like a lamb, following a lion of a wind. Tiny flakes flutter down slowly finding a place to rest. As light as they come, they still form a shroud of white over the landscape. Before heading out the door on my morning walk, I stop and take in the view. It’s not old hat yet; it’s the newest thing in the neighborhood. Christmas lights twinkle as my steps make the first prints in the fresh snow. It’s starting to feel like December now.
When I was young, the beginning of December meant the arrival of Saint Nicholas Day. In Belgium, we celebrated it on December 6 by putting out our shoes at the bottom of the staircase and leaving a carrot for St. Nicholas’ donkey. I didn’t yet know about reindeer...The bigger production, though, was at school. We were often dismissed from our classroom so we could go meet St. Nicholas in the big gymnasium. He was dressed in his Catholic finery: a bright white cassock, draped with a red stole, a bright red velvet cloak tied at the neck with golden ribbons, a miter on his head embellished with a golden cross, spotless white gloves, large rings on several fingers and a staff of gold in his hand. He always wore a bright white beard and when he saw him, we felt a mix of awe, saintliness and excitement.
When we lined up to see him, it was not to ask him for anything. We did not have lists to give. All we could hope for was a warm handshake, maybe a ring to kiss, and, hoping we had behaved well, we would receive a big bag of goodies. Often, there were oranges or mandarins, gold-wrapped chocolate coins, Speculoos (a Belgian spiced cookie) and other such treats. After making the “pilgrimage” to see him, we would leave school early, arms loaded with the goodies as well as our books. One year, a helicopter flew overhead and we all thought it was bringing St. Nicholas since our school might have been hard to access with a donkey…
From December 6 on, there seemed to be magic in the air. A nativity appeared on our dining room sideboard. We would start to sign and send out cards. Every morning, we opened a new door on our Advent calendar. The week before Christmas, we would get a live tree, right down the road, and the excitement mounted. Our church tree would have real candles that we lit during the Christmas program, making sure there were buckets of water around, in case of fire!
After coming across the ocean, I continued this tradition and have kept it going to this day. This year, we celebrated two nights in a row. We invited friends with Belgian connections for a Belgian meal. And they brought the Speculoos and chocolate. The following night, we were invited to tea by a man with Dutch connections. We also ate Dutch almond cookies. Taking the time to be with friends put me in a holiday mood. Away from the news and social media, I once again find the goodness of human relationships.
The stories that surround St. Nicholas are about restoring life and enabling goodness. He is also the protector of children. He is not the automatic provider of things on my wish list, rather a saintly figure that likes to bring gifts to children. I think of him as a precursor to Christmas, the beginning of a time of wonder, not a frenzy of buying. He brings back the spirit of generosity that I like to keep in mind at this time of the year.
Opening my home and spirit to others is one way I can pass that on. I hope you have occasion to do it as well.
Here is the recipe I use to make those Belgian cookies, Speculoos.
1 c. butter
4 c. brown sugar
1 T. soda dissolved in 1 T. hot water
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/4 t. ground cloves
6 to 7 c. flour
One day before baking, cream the butter and brown sugar. Mix in the eggs and beat well. Add soda and water. Mix in the flour and the spices, kneading thoroughly. It will be a stiff dough. Store dough in the refrigerator, covered, at least overnight to allow the spices to blend in. Remove from the refrigerator and use hands to soften and flatten the dough. Roll out onto a lightly floured surface to a ¼” thick. Cut out shapes; I often use windmills and traditional Dutch men and women shapes. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, until puffy and just beginning to brown on the edges, or a little longer if you want them to be crunchy.
This dough will keep in the refrigerator for a long time. You can pull it out and shape and bake it, as needed.