Tomorrow, December 6th, is Saint Nicholas Day. In much of Northern Europe it is a very popular 'holiday' in the early Advent Season. Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century bishop in present day Turkey and has been venerated since as a patron saint of children, students, sailors, and others in need.
In Germany and the Netherlands it is customary for children to put their shoes outside their bedroom doors on December 5th in anticipation of Saint Nicholas filling them overnight with treats such as fruit, nuts and sweets. Naughty children could expect to receive straw switches or lumps of coal. This tradition anticipates our custom of hanging stocking by the fireplace on Christmas Eve, hoping that they will be filled with small treats and presents.
My own personal experience with the Saint Nicholas Day tradition came when Patty and I were living and baking in Germany. For us as Americans it was not a tradition we grew up with. We were living with the Biss family in Koblenz, Germany at that time, and I was working at a bakery, Konditorei Stock, during the Christmas season. The Biss are a wonderful family of open-minded and generous Germans who invited us to live in their home with their three young daughters between the Spring of 1977 and the early Summer of 1978. It was a household filled with laughter, love, some good mischievous fun, cooking, baking, music and singing. They were always supportive of our endeavors and helped us beyond anything we could have expected from strangers. (How we came to meet them is a story that deserves telling at another time.) We felt so bound to them that, when our first son, Peter, was born, we asked Hermann and Ursula Biss to be his godparents. Our connection was recently renewed when their grandson, Tim, was attending Amherst Regional High School in October as an exchange student for four weeks. Visiting with him and talking about his mom, who was 14 when we first met her, and his grandparents, who are now in their 80's, was a wonderful and sometimes strange occasion to connect the present with the past. After all, we knew people he has known all his life, but from a time frame long before his birth.
It was December 5th, 1977 and I came home from the bakery as usual in the early afternoon. As was my custom, I took off my flour and sugar encrusted work shoes as I entered the front hall and placed them on the top step just inside the door of the basement stairs. They definitely were not shoes for wearing inside the house. I never really thought about how dirty my shoes were becoming over time; I just routinely put them on in the early morning before work and took them off after work when I got home. What I didn't realize was that those shoes must have been a curiosity to the Biss family; they were a testament to the otherness of the work life that these American strangers had introduced into their home, and perhaps also a puzzlement about my indifference to how messy I had allowed my shoes to get.
How surprised I was, how grateful, and perhaps a little embarrassed too, when I went to the cellar stairs on the early morning of December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, to find that my cruddy work shoes had been polished clean, every nook and cranny, from toe to heel, shiny and like new, and filled with oranges, chocolate and nuts.
They say that the best gifts to get are the ones you least expect. I will never forget that gift, and I'm sure there was a greater bounce to my step all that day at work. But from the other side of this story, I think that the best gifts to give humble the giver in order to tell the recipient how much you care. If it's true that you shouldn't judge another man until you've walked in his shoes, what must it say about a man (or a woman, or a family) who would stoop to clean them?
God Bless You, Familie Biss!
Happy Saint Nicholas Day!