The Festival of Saint Nicholas
We all know how, before the Christmas tree began to
flourish in the home life of our country, a certain
“right jolly old elf,” with “eight
tiny reindeer,” used to drive his sleigh-load
of toys up to our housetops, and then bounded down the
chimney to fill the stockings so hopefully hung by the
fireplace. His friends called his Santa Claus, and those
who were most intimate ventured
to say “Old Nick.” It was said that he originally
came from Holland. Doubtless he did, but, if so, he
certainly, like many other foreigners, changed his ways
very much after landing upon our shores. In Holland,
Saint Nicholas is a veritable saint and often appears
in full costume, with his embroidered robes, glittering
with gems and gold, his miter, his crosier, and his
jeweled gloves. Here Santa Claus comes rollicking along,
twenty-fifth of December, our holy Christmas morn. But
in Holland, Saint Nicholas visits earth on the fifth,
a time especially appropriated to him. Early on the
morning of the sixth, he distributes his candies, toys,
and treasures, then vanishes for a year.
Christmas Day is devoted by the Hollanders to church
rites and pleasant family visiting. It is on Saint Nicholas’s
their young people become half wild with joy and expectation.
To some of them it is a sorry time, for the saint is
very candid, and if any of them have been bad during
the past year, he is quite sure to tell them so. Sometimes
he gives a birch rod under his arm and advises the parents
to give them scoldings in place of confections, and
floggings instead of toys.
It was well that the boys hastened to their abodes on
that bright winter evening, for in less than an hour
afterward, the saint
made his appearance in half the homes of Holland. He
visited the king’s palace and in the selfsame
moment appeared in Annie Bouman’s comfortable
home. Probably one of our silver half-dollars would
have purchased all that his saintship left at the peasant
Bouman’s; but a half-dollar’s worth will
sometimes do for the poor what hundreds of dollars may
fail to do for the rich; it makes them happy and grateful,
fills them with new peace and love.
Hilda van Gleck’s little brothers and sisters
were in a high state of excitement that night. They
had been admitted into the grand parlor; they were dressed
in their best and had been given two cakes apiece at
supper. Hilda was as joyous as any. Why not? Saint Nicholas
would never cross a girl of fourteen from his list,
just because she was tall and looked almost like a woman.
On the contrary, he would probably exert himself to
do honor to such an august-looking damsel. Who could
tell? So she sported and laughed and danced as gaily
as the youngest and was the soul of all their merry
games. Her father, mother, and grandmother looked on
approvingly; so did her grandfather, before he spread
his large red handkerchief over his face, leaving only
the top of his skullcap visible. This kerchief was his
ensign of sleep.
Earlier in the evening all had joined in the fun. In
the general hilarity there had seemed to be a difference
only in bulk between grandfather and the baby. Indeed,
a shade of solemn expectation, now and then flitting
across the faces of the younger members, had made them
seem rather more thoughtful than their elders.
Now the spirit of fun reigned supreme. The very flames
danced and capered in the polished grate. A pair of
prim candles that had been staring at the astral lamp
began to wink at other candles far away in the mirrors.
There was a long bell rope suspended from the ceiling
in the corner, made of glass beads netted over a cord
nearly as thick as your wrist. It is generally hung
in the shadow and made no sign, but tonight it
twinkled from end to end. Its handle of crimson glass
sent reckless dashes of red at the papered wall, turning
blue stripes into purple. Passersby halted to catch
the merry laughter floating, through curtain and sash,
into the street, then skipped on their way with a startled
consciousness that the village was wide-awake. At last
matters grew so uproarious that the grandsire’s
red kerchief came down from his face with a jerk.
What decent old gentleman could sleep in such a racket!
Mynheer van Gleck regarded his children with astonishment.
The baby even showed symptoms of hysterics. It was high
time to attend to business. Madame suggested that if
they wished to see the good Saint Nicholas, they should
sing the same loving invitation that had brought him
the year before.
The baby stared and thrust his fist into his mouth as
mynheer put him down upon the floor. Soon he sat erect
and looked with a sweet scowl at the company. With his
lace and embroideries and his crown of blue ribbon and
whalebone (for he was not quite past the tumbling age),
he looked like the king of the babies.
The other children, each holding a pretty willow basket,
formed a ring at once, and moved slowly around the little
fellow, lifting their eyes, for the saint to whom they
were about to address themselves was yet in mysterious
Madame commenced playing softly upon the piano. Soon
the voices rose—gentle, youthful voices—rendered
all the sweeter for their tremor:
“Welcome, friend! Saint Nicholas, welcome!
Bring no rod for us tonight!
While our voices bid thee welcome,
Every heart with joy is light!
Tell us every fault and failing,
We will bear thy keenest railing,
So we sing—so we sing—
Thou shalt tell us everything!
Welcome, friend! Saint Nicholas, welcome!
Welcome to this merry band!
Happy children greet thee, welcome!
Thou art glad’ning all the land!
Fill each empty hand and basket,
’Tis thy little ones who ask it,
So we sing—so we sing—
Thou wilt bring us everything!”
During the chorus sundry glances, half in eagerness,
half in dread, had been cast toward the polished folding
doors. Now a loud knocking was heard. The circle was
broken in an instant. Some of the little ones, with
a strange mixture of fear and delight, pressed against
their mother’s knee. Grandfather bent forward
with his chin resting upon his hand; Grandmother lifted
her spectacles; Mynheer van Gleck, seated by the fireplace,
slowly drew his meerschaum from his mouth while Hilda
and the other children settled themselves beside him
in an expectant group.
The knocking was heard again.
“Come in,” said madame softly.
The door slowly opened, and Saint Nicholas, in full
array, stood before them.
You could have heard a pin drop.
from Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes