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The Festival Of St Nicholas






MARY MAPES DODGE

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 bound down the chimney to fill the stockings so
hopefully hung by the fireplace. His friends called him 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, St. Nicholas is a veritable saint,
and often appears in full costume, with his embroidered robes glittering
with gems and gold, his mitre, his crosier, and his jewelled gloves.
_Here_ Santa Claus comes rollicking along on the 25th of December, our
Holy Christmas morn; but in Holland, St. Nicholas visits earth on the
5th, a time especially appropriated to him. Early on the morning of the
6th, which is St. Nicholas Day, he distributes his candies, toys and
treasures, and then vanishes for a year.

Christmas Day is devoted by the Hollanders to church-rites and pleasant
family visiting. It is on St. Nicholas Eve that 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
carries a birch-rod under his arm, and advises the parents to give them
scoldings in place of confections, and floggings instead of joys.

It was well that the boys hastened to their abodes on that bright winter
evening; for, in less than an hour afterwards, the saint made his
appearance in half the homes of Holland. He visited the king's palace,
and in the self-same 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? St. 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 gayly as the youngest, and was the
soul of all their merry games. Father, mother and grandmother looked on
approvingly; so did grandfather, before he spread his large red
handkerchief over his face, leaving only the top of his skull-cap
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 generally hung in the shadow, and made no sign; but
to-night it twinkled from end to end. Its handle of crimson glass sent
reckless dashes of red at the papered wall, turning its dainty blue
stripes into purple. Passers-by halted to catch the merry laughter
floating through curtain and sash into the street, then skipped on their
way with the 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. Mevrouw suggested that, if they wished to
see the good St. 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 babies.

The other children, each holding a pretty willow basket, formed at once
in a ring, and moved slowly around the little fellow, lifting their eyes
meanwhile; for the saint to whom they were about to address themselves
was yet in mysterious quarters.

Mevrouw commenced playing softly upon the piano; soon the voices
rose,--gentle, youthful voices, rendered all the sweeter for their
tremor,--

Welcome, friend! St. Nicholas, welcome!
Bring no rod for us to-night!
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! St. Nicholas, welcome!
Welcome to this merry band!
Happy children greet thee, welcome!
Thou art gladdening all the land.

Fill each empty hand and basket;
'T is 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 towards 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 the mevrouw, softly.

The door slowly opened; and St. Nicholas, in full array, stood before
them. You could have heard a pin drop. Soon he spoke. What a mysterious
majesty in his voice! what kindliness in his tone!

Karel van Gleck, I am pleased to greet thee, and thy honored _vrouw_,
Kathrine, and thy son, and his good _vrouw_, Annie.

Children, I greet ye all,--Hendrick, Hilda, Broom, Katy, Huygens and
Lucretia. And thy cousins,--Wolfert, Diedrich, Mayken, Voost and
Katrina. Good children ye have been, in the main, since I last accosted
ye. Diedrich was rude at the Haarlem fair last fall; but he has tried to
atone for it since. Mayken has failed, of late, in her lessons; and too
many sweets and trifles have gone to her lips, and too few stivers to
her charity-box. Diedrich, I trust, will be a polite, manly boy for the
future; and Mayken will endeavor to shine as a student. Let her
remember, too, that economy and thrift are needed in the foundation of a
worthy and generous life. Little Katy has been cruel to the cat more
than once. St. Nicholas can hear the cat cry when its tail is pulled. I
will forgive her, if she will remember from this hour that the smallest
dumb creatures have feeling, and must not be abused.

As Katy burst into a frightened cry, the saint graciously remained
silent until she was soothed.

Master Broom, he resumed, I warn thee that boys who are in the habit
of putting snuff upon the foot-stove of the school-mistress may one day
be discovered, and receive a flogging--

(Master Broom colored, and stared in great astonishment.)

But, thou art such an excellent scholar, I shall make thee no further
reproof.

Thou, Hendrick, didst distinguish thyself in the archery match last
spring, and hit the _doel_,[A] though the bird was swung before it to
unsteady thine eye. I give thee credit for excelling in manly sport and
exercise; though I must not unduly countenance thy boat-racing, since it
leaves thee too little time for thy proper studies.

[Footnote A: Bull's-eye.]

Lucretia and Hilda shall have a blessed sleep to-night. The
consciousness of kindness to the poor, devotion in their souls, and
cheerful, hearty obedience to household rule, will render them happy.

With one and all I avow myself well content. Goodness, industry,
benevolence and thrift have prevailed in your midst. Therefore, my
blessing upon you; and may the New Year find all treading the paths of
obedience, wisdom and love! To-morrow you shall find more substantial
proofs that I have been in your home. Farewell!

With these words came a great shower of sugar-plums upon a linen sheet
spread out in front of the doors. A general scramble followed. The
children fairly tumbled over each other in their eagerness to fill their
baskets. Mevrouw cautiously held the baby down upon the sheet till the
chubby little fists were filled. Then the bravest of the youngsters
sprang up and threw open the closed doors. In vain they searched the
mysterious apartment. St. Nicholas was nowhere to be seen.

Soon they all sped to another room, where stood a table, covered with
the whitest of linen damask. Each child, in a flutter of pleasure, laid
a shoe upon it, and each shoe held a little hay for the good saint's
horse. The door was then carefully locked, and its key hidden in the
mother's bedroom. Next followed good-night kisses, a grand family
procession to the upper floor, merry farewells at bedroom doors, and
silence, at last, reigned in the Van Gleck mansion.

Early the next morning, the door was solemnly unlocked and opened in the
presence of the assembled household; when, lo! a sight appeared, proving
good St. Nicholas to be a saint of his word.

Every shoe was filled to overflowing; and beside each stood a
many-colored pile. The table was heavy with its load of
presents,--candies, toys, trinkets, books and other articles. Every one
had gifts, from grandfather down to the baby.





Next: The Christmas Holly

Previous: December



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