St. Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas Day 2009 - St. Mary's Cathedral - 4 by Gary Bridgman via flickr
St. Nicholas Day 2009 – St. Mary’s Cathedral – 4 by Gary Bridgman via flickr

December 6th is the feast day of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas Day goes largely uncelebrated in the United States, but in many countries St. Nicholas is the primary gift giver of the holiday season and his feast day supersedes Christmas as the main day of gifting. Where the holiday is celebrated, children put out their freshly polished shoes or boots on the windowsill on the evening of the fifth. That night, St. Nicholas visits children’s houses and fills their shoes with apples, oranges, almonds, candies, or other small gifts.

The details of the celebrations vary from country to country. For example, in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas takes the form of Sinterklaas who arrives in the country by boat from Spain in late November. Accompanying him is his servant, Zwarte Piet, dressed in the garb of a German mercenary (Zwarte Piet means ‘Black Pete’ and traditionally has been a white man dressed in black face. There is an ongoing controversy in the Netherlands about whether or not Zwarte Piet is a figure of racism, which I am not going to get into in this post! If you’d like to read more about the controversy, HuffPost has a decent summary here.)

The historical St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century and was bishop of Myra in Lycia (present day Turkey). This is why we still see images of St. Nicholas carrying a bishop’s crosier (staff with a curl at the top) and wearing a mitre (pointy bishop hat). St. Nicholas is said to have performed many miracles, given away his vast inheritance to the poor, and rescued the city in a time of famine. More than 400 years after his death, his bones were taken from Myra to the Italian harbor town of Bari, after which his popularity began to spread throughout Europe and his feast day became a more popular celebration.

A simple St. Nicholas celebration:

If you would like to celebrate St. Nicholas Day with your children this year, it can be done quite simply. On the evening of December 5th, tell a simple St. Nicholas story. Many St. Nicolas stories an be found here:

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/stories-more/

There are a wide-range of stories varying from the religious to the secular, so you should be able to find one that reflects your family’s beliefs.

Then, have your children clean a pair of their shoes or boots with a rag and set them either outside their bedroom door or by a windowsill. During the night, St. Nicholas can pay a visit and leave special treats inside the shoes such as oranges, chocolate, candy canes, a note, poem, or whatever else is special and at hand!

Sarah Josepha Hale: The Activist Who Gave Us Thanksgiving

By painted by James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As school children, most of us were taught the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621. However, what happened to the holiday in the subsequent years is a story often left untold. Following the first Thanksgiving in 1621, celebrations of Thanksgiving were irregular and disunited. Days of celebration and thanksgiving for the harvest occurred in the fall throughout the colonies, taking place anytime from late September through early December. Thanksgiving was most commonly observed in the New England colonies of Pilgrim stock, and less so in the south.

It took almost 250 more years for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday fixed on a specific day (then the last Thursday of November, now the fourth Thursday of November). Without the advocacy of writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, Thanksgiving may well have slipped silently into the past as so many of our seasonal holidays have.

Sarah Josepha Hale was an autodidactic New Hampshire mother and writer. She wrote a much celebrated novel about slavery, published in 1827, after which she was offered the editorship of a women’s magazine, The Ladies Magazine and Literary Gazette. She was the first female editor of a magazine in the U.S. From her post as editor of this highly successful magazine, she petitioned her national audience in support of many civil, social, and patriotic causes, including women’s education and the establishment of a national Thanksgiving.

Starting in 1846, she began her advocacy work toward making Thanksgiving a national holiday. Over the next 17 years, she would write thousands of letters, petition five different U.S. presidents, and publish numerous articles in her magazine all in support of creating a national holiday of Thanksgiving.  Hale hoped that the establishment of a shared national day of Thanksgiving might prevent the outbreak of war between the increasingly fractious North and South. “There is a deep moral influence in the periodical seasons of rejoicing,” she wrote, “in which whole communities participate. They bring out…the best sympathies in our natures.”

Hale finally found an ally in President Lincoln. She wrote him many letters and eventually visited him in person at the White House. Three months after the battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln ordered a proclamation establishing Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November. In his proclamation, Lincoln wrote:

And I recommend to them, that while offering up the ascriptions due to Him for such singular deliverance and blessings, they do so with humble penitence…commend to His tender care those who have become widows, orphans, or mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, and Union.

Although possibly influenced by Hale, Lincoln’s motivations for the establishment of a national Thanksgiving were likely complex. Godfrey Hodgson, author of A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving, contends that the proclamation was, “…probably motivated by the need to maintain the civilian morale of a Union whose ultimate victory might now be inevitable, but where the costs and travails of the war were bitterly discouraging. Lincoln was always acutely aware of the connection between civilian morale and military victory in a great citizen army, and he was particularly sensitive to the moral sensibilities of the New England Christian intelligentsia and to that New England Protestant tradition from which, after all, the nation owed Thanksgiving in the first place. The decision to make Thanksgiving a national holiday illustrates the two sides of Lincoln’s genius: the moral prophet and the shrewd politician.” Whatever the motivation behind Lincoln’s proclamation, Hale’s influence on the President, local governments, and everyday Americans was instrumental in forging the idea of a national day of Thanksgiving. And that is something we can all be thankful for.

St. Clement’s Day: Explosions Upon the Anvil and Singing for Treats

November 23 marks both the traditional first day of winter (now recognized as the twenty-first of December) and the feast of St. Clement. St. Clement is the patron saint of blacksmiths. Why Clement has this honor is a matter of some disagreement. Some legends claim he was martyred by having an anchor tied around his neck and cast into the sea, thus becoming to the patron saint of anchor-smiths. Other legends claim he was the first man to refine iron from ore. His feast day may also have melded with that of Wayland the Smith of Norse mythology.

Blacksmiths and their apprentices typically took this day as a holiday. The evening of “Old Clem’s Day” would be marked by the tradition of “firing the anvil”, in which gunpowder would be packed into a small hole in an anvil; the smith would then hit the anvil with his hammer, causing a small explosion. Smiths would also dress up as “Old Clem” donning a great coat, mask, white beard, and wig. Smiths would then go door to door, carrying an iron pot, and petitioning their neighbors to fund their feast day.

Eventually, children took charge of this celebration, going out “clemencing” on November 23. Children would go door-to-door begging for gifts and food, singing chants all the while. Such as:

Clemany! Clemany! Clemany mine!
A good red apple and a pint of wine,
Some of your mutton and some of your veal,
If it is good, pray give me a deal;
If it is not, pray give me some salt.
Butler, butler, fill your bowl;
If thou fill’st it of the best,
The Lord’ll send your soul to rest;
If thou fill’st it of the small,
Down goes butler bowl and all…

or (I love this one):

Pray, good mistress, send to me
one for Peter, one for Paul,
one for him who made us all;
Apple, pear, plum, or cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry;
A bouncing buck and a velvet chair,
Clement comes but once a year;
off with the pot and on with the pan,
A good red apple and I’ll be gone.

These Old Clem songs even make an appearance in Dicken’s Great Expectations. When asked to sing a song for Miss Havisham, Pip sings a song he has heard Old Joe sing to the rhythm of beating upon the iron, “…hammer boys round – Old Clem! With a thump and a sound – Old Clem! Beat it out, beat it out – Old Clem! Blow the fire, blow the fire – Old Clem! Roaring dryer, soaring higher, Old Clem!”

It seems a rather fun holiday to me! Maybe I’ll take the kids out ‘clemencing’ this evening!

By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons