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.





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