Monday, December 5, 2011

St. Nicholas Eve

December 6th is the feast day of one of the Church's most popular saints: St. Nicholas. This feast day always brings me back to one of the many memorable moments I had while living in Belgium. I was in the town square one day doing some shopping and walked into a Walgreens-like store called "Hema." It was the first week of December. I was astonished at the first thing I saw when I walked in the doors. In the middle of the aisle was a display rack with St. Nicholas puppets, just like these. They were the featured item for sale. Old St. Nick was ornately adorned in his bishop's mitre, cross in the center, with a removable staff and several changes of liturgical garments. And not only was St. Nick the featured and fastest-selling toy for sale, but each puppet set also came with his politically incorrect companion, Black Peter.

I was absolutely enchanted. Had I not been a poor university student, I would have bought them right then and there. The legend of Saint Nicholas may be one of the most forgotten and dramatically altered traditions of the Church. Although there are many variations of the St. Nicholas legend, none of them makes any mention of a North Pole or Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. Like many altered legends as well as fairy tales, I have to admit that I find the changes quite baffling and even irritating. Why should families have to trade their devotion to this noble and generous Saint for a highly dubitable character in red polyester? The answer: they don't. Aside from social pressure or a sense of childhood nostalgia, I can't think of a reason you would.  Here's a quick summary of a few of the Saint Nicholas stories:

"When an impoverished father was on the verge of selling his three daughters into prostitution, Nicholas came to the rescue with sacks of gold to provide dowries for each of them to be able to marry. When innocent men were condemned to death, Nicholas intervened with the authorities and secured their release. When a wicked innkeeper killed three lost boys, chopped them up, and pickled them, Nicholas discovered the crime and restored the boys alive to their mothers. When a ship was floundering in a storm and about to sink, Nicholas calmed the storm and saved the lives of the sailors. Whenever possible, his good deeds were performed in secret and, needless to say, they have continued long after his death."

Worlds apart from elves with pointy shoes making toys in the world's coldest regions for a jolly man who eats too many cookies. The first story about the girls being sold into prostitution is what inspires the tradition of setting out shoes on St. Nicholas Eve. Legend has it that St. Nick threw the bags of gold through the girls' open window, where it just happened to land in their stockings. Children all over the world set their shoes out tonight in anticipation of St. Nick's generosity. St. Nick fills our daughter's shoe with gold chocolate coins, candy canes, and sometimes a small present (last year it was a holy card of the Saint himself). He also reappears on Christmas Eve to fill stockings with small gifts.

Baking is another St. Nick tradition. We plan to make traditional speculaas cookies today for our St. Nicholas Eve feast. Someday we want to buy these amazing speculaas molds for our St. Nicholas cookies (not to mention Christmas, shortbread, etc.). For now, we'll just keep it simple. I'm using a recipe from Catholic Cuisine, a great blog for anyone interested in Catholic cooking. Here's the recipe:


Mix in order:
  • 1 cup shortening (I'm using butter)
  • 2 cups white sugar (or you can use half brown and half white)
  • 4 eggs
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 4 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons allspice
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cloves

Mix all ingredients and turn out the dough onto a floured board. Knead in about one cup additional flour or as much as you need until dough is no longer sticky and is easy to handle.

Put into a plastic bag and refrigerate until chilled and stiff. Then you are ready to roll out and cut the cookies. Cut off a manageable piece and keep the rest cool until you are ready for more.

For the larger, hand decorated St. Nicholas cookies, roll the dough to about ¼ inch thickness. Cut out cookie around paper pattern. Place on greased baking sheet.

Bake at 350ยบ F. until golden-brown.

To conclude, here's a short prayer entrusting our children to this great Saint:

God our Father, we pray
that through the intercession of St. Nicholas,
you will protect our children.
Keep them safe from harm
and help them grow
and become worthy in your sight.
Give them strength
to keep their faith in you;
and keep alive their joy
in your creation.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We call upon your mercy, O Lord.
Through the intercession of St. Nicholas,
keep us safe amid all dangers
so that we may go forward without hindrance
on the road of salvation. Amen.

St. Nicholas,  Pray For Us!

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful article....Very informative. Thank you.