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( Originally Published 1909 )
There is no country in Europe where Saint Nicholas is more honored than in Holland. Even before his festival arrives-during all the first five days of December-the shops in town and city put on their most festive array. All the people in shop and street assume a brisk and bustling air. Dutch men and Dutch women, usually silent and stolid, hail one another with noisy greetings as they meet. Everybody, in short, has his best foot foremost.
Amsterdam, one of many cities which claim Saint Nicholas as their patron saint, is especially wideawake. During the first week of December the confectioners' shops are ablaze with all sorts of splendors in cake and candy. Sugar rabbits, sugar cats and sugar mice disport themselves amid scenery of sugar and chocolate and wood shavings. The shavings (painted a vivid green), supply the foliage for chocolate trees and candied fruits. In all shapes and sizes are figures of men and women made out of crisp brown gingerbread, called Saint Nicholas cake, which is specially prepared for the holiday. These figures are sometimes known as "sweethearts" and it is a merry jest to send a girl figure to a boy and a boy figure to a girl. Nay the elders themselves are not forgotten if they are unmarried. It is good fun, we are told, to have a servant burst into a roomful of people and say to the lady of the house:
"If you please ma'am, here is Miss Annie's sweetheart," and hand over to mamma a gingerbread man for her little girl
Other jokes of the same kind are played with socalled "hearts," large and luscious pieces of marchpane moulded into the familiar shape supposed to resemble the organ that is supposed to be the seat of human affection. These are exchanged among the young people much as valentines, with us, are exchanged on February 14th.
"Of course," says the authority I have already quoted, a lady of Holland birth who speaks of what she herself has seen and experienced, "most girls like having such an innocent heart sent to them, and it is funny to see the mysterious look with which one tells another:
"I had a large heart sent to me last night. I cannot possibly think who sent it."
Here and there in the streets you will see groups of boys and girls clustered around a linen-draper's shop. For it is the linen drapers who especially love to display in their windows a life-like image of Saint Nicholas, ruddy faced, white bearded, crowned with his mitre and clad in his bright red robe lined with soft white fur, bearing a crozier in his hand, and mounted on a fiery white horse. Behind him stands his negro servant Jan, or John.
On December 5th, the eve of the saint's feast, he is said to ride over the roofs of the houses, dropping candies into the wide chimneys. And indeed, in houses where children believe this, their faith is rewarded by the fact that candies and other goodies do stream down into the great open hearths and are gathered in by eager little people who have been singing the saint's praises all through the evening.
In many households, moreover, the saint actually presents himself to the eyes of his worshippers and admirers. A knock is heard at the door; it is opened, and amid the breathless silence of the children, Santa Klaus, in flesh and blood, and in all the glory of scarlet robe and bejewelled mitre, steps into the room. He is closely followed by his servant Jan, who bears a basket containing all sorts of presents for the good children, and all sorts of unpleasant reminders for the bad ones.
Before these things are distributed, Santa Klaus calls up the children one by one. He praises the good ones for all the kind deeds they have done during the past year, while gently reproving any faults which may have mingled with their virtues. To the bad ones he is stern but just. He reminds them of their misdeeds, and tells them that he cannot give them any presents until they improve. If they have been very, very bad, he hands a birch rod over to their parents with the advice that it should be used upon their little backs in the task of reformation.
Great is the wonder that Santa Klaus should know so much about the children in a whole neighborhood. He goes, or is supposed to go, from house to house in the course of the day, and everywhere he praises the virtues or condemns the faults of the boys and girls arrayed to meet him. Sometimes it is found, by comparing notes, that he was in two or more houses at the same time.
Of course, you who have had your eyes opened, guess that the part of Santa Klaus is taken by some older member of each family, who confines his visits to his own circle of relatives. Except in very small villages, there are many Santa Klauses, therefore, going the rounds on Saint Nicholas's day, each well acquainted in the houses he visits.
In Austria, also, and in many parts of Southern Germany, St. Nicholas Eve is made memorable in every nursery by a visit from the saint. A well grown boy with a quick and clever mind and some knowledge of church doctrine, is chosen to play the part of Santa Klaus. He is masked in long white vestments. A silk scarf is wound around his neck, a mitre crowns his head, a crozier is put in his hand. He is attended by two angels and a_ whole troop of devils.
The angels are dressed much like the choir-boys you have seen in Catholic and Episcopalian churches, save that they also wear silken scarfs around their necks. Each carries a basket.
The devils blacken their faces, put horns upon their heads and decorate their faces with pig's snouts or any other grotesque device that may suggest itself to their fancy. All are girt with chains, which they shake or rattle furiously.
Boy-like, it is thought much better fun to play devil than angel, and any boy who can lay his hands upon a suitable costume is at liberty to join the infernal train.
Late in the afternoon of December 5th the Boybishop and his attendants begin their round of visits. It is the season for young folks' parties, and all the children of the village who are not masquerading as bishop or angel or imp have gathered together in a few of the principal houses. At each Saint Nicholas calls in its due turn.
He enters with the two angels, leaving the demons outside to indulge in any pranks they will. A great hush falls upon the assembled children as the Saint advances into the room. One by one he calls them up to examine them. Simple questions suited to their various ages are put to them by the bishop, after which each has to repeat a hymn or a prayer. All this part of the evening's business is carried on with the greatest seriousness and decorum on the part of children and grown-ups alike.
If the child passes a satisfactory examination the angels present it with nuts and apples-if not it has to stand aside. When the last of the examinations is over, the devils are admitted into the room.
They are not allowed to come near the good children, but they may tease and frighten the naughty little boys and girls as much as they choose. They delight in strange dances, and in all sorts of odd antics, such as smearing the girls' faces with lampblack, or putting coal dust and ashes down the backs of the boys.
When Saint Nicholas has left, the children return to their own homes. Before going to bed they hang up their stockings by the chimney or, more likely, place their little boots and shoes close to the hearth, expecting to find them filled with gifts in the morning.
Boots and shoes indeed, came before stockings almost everywhere, the advantages of clean stockings as receivers for candies and other eatables being a comparatively new discovery. In Belgium to this day the children give their shoes an extra fine polish on Christmas Eve, fill them with hay, oats, carrots, for Santa Klaus's white horse, and put them on the table, or set them in the fireplace. The room is then carefully closed and the door is locked.
In the morning a strange thing is found to have happened! The furniture is all turned topsy-turvy, the fodder has been removed from the shoes and in its place the good little children find all sorts of nice things and the bad ones only rods of birch and bits of coal.
Boots and shoes are also in use in many parts of France. But here, as a general rule, it is the good little Jesus (le bon petit Jesus) who comes down the chimney to fill all this footgear with sweetmeats. Formerly this custom extended to Paris. A French journalist named Charton thus describes the sights that met his eye on Christmas eve in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century:
"Lo! what a strange thing! Before all the mantelpieces of Paris are ranged, with a wonderful symmetry, charming little shoes, pretty little bottines, miniature slippers, and, as the extremities of the f au bourgs, poor little sabots! It will be asked, what all those tiny little boots and shoes are doing there? There are enough of them to cover the feet of all the inhabitants of the vast kingdom of Lilliput.What are they doing there? They are waiting for a beautiful little luminous hand to descend from heaven to fill them with preserved fruits and bonbons! In the olden time the presents intended for children were fastened to the two ends of the Yule Log. Later an attempt was made to introduce into France the Christmas-tree, which, in a large portion of Europe, has superseded the Yule Log. But it is most usual to keep to the simple custom of filling the little shoes with bonbons, which more than one mother of the laboring classes has had the foresight to reserve for that purpose. We will not venture to say that, whilst the good mother or the elder sister is stealthily approaching the hearth and stooping down, one of the little sleepers, kept awake with expectation, does not open his eyelids slily, and say to himself: Ah! I was sure it was not the little Jesus!' But the prudent child will take care not to confess that he has discovered the mystery; he has too much interest in being cheated next Christmas-day; and in a few hours the room will ring with his cries of false surprise but real gratification."
Only candies and sweetmeats, you will see, were brought down through the chimney by the Christchild on Christmas eve. The favorite time for giftmaking from parent to child, from child to parent, from friend to friend, was on New 'Year's Day. Hence that holiday is known as "Le Jour des Etrennes (the day of presents), "etrennes" being a corruption of the Latin word "strenae," the gifts exchanged during the Saturnalia, about which I have written in the fourth chapter of this book.
Though Saint Nicholas is honored as the patron of children in nearly all the Catholic countries of continental Europe, he is rarely associated in any way with Christmas. That day is there held sacred to the Christ child alone. In a very few- localities Saint Nicholas may appear on his own day to find out what good little boys and girls would like to have on Christmas, or, sometimes, at New Year's, but it is generally the little Jesus who is the actual gift bringer.
In the Catholic portions of Austria and Germany all of the windows are lit up on the night of December 24 so as to enable Him to pick His way from house to house. Here you may again recognize a lingering memory of the Pagan and Jewish festivals wherein lighted torches, or lamps, or candles form a chief feature.
And, indeed, one may point out right here that the Christ child supplies another link with the old pagan Silenus. The latter, as I have told you, was, among other things, the guardian and tutor of the infant Bacchus. Whenever picture or statue represented him in this capacity all his evil traits were dropped. He became a very different being from the graceless reveller of the Bacchanalian feasts. He was now painted or carved as an old man, grave and sober, clean-cut in limbs and features, holding little Bacchus in his arms or on his shoulders. Possibly this figure may have suggested the mediaeval legend of Saint Christopher, who, it is fabled, bore the Christ child on his shoulders across a river in Germany.
In Italy almost every church has an altar dedicated to the Christ child and decorated with a wooden or waxen effigy known as "Il Bambino," or "the babe." On Christmas day this Bambino is specially honored by being dressed up in his finest clothes and placed in a mimic cradle, called a presepio. All good Catholics flock to do the image honor during the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany.
The most famous Bambino in Italy is that in the Franciscan church of Ara Coeli at Rome, which is believed to heal the sick and perform other miracles. On Christmas day a curious ceremony is performed in his honor which makes our thoughts travel back to the Boy-bishop of old England and elsewhere. Opposite the presepio in which the little waxen figure reposes is built a palco, or platform, and on this platform a number of baby orators follow one another with little speeches, written by their elders, that dwell upon the birth of our Lord and the incidents of His childhood.