Today, December 6, is St Nicholas Day. You can click on the link for historical facts about the man, but my German community celebrated him in its own way. I wrote and published the story in Postcards from the Old Man in 2004, but lately I have been reminiscing lots of home and family.
THE MAGIC BAG
In an insane attempt to get some Christmas shopping done early, I took off to the shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving. Wandering shoppers, full of yuletide spirit, bumped into each other, smiled politely, and said, “Excuse me.” Smiling clerks cheerfully reminded their customers to “make sure you keep your receipt if you want to return this.”
I knew that later in the season when shoppers rushed to finish their buying and clerks grew weary with the crazy hours and demands, the merry mood in the mall would change. As I was pushed from one end of the mall to the other, I saw grown-ups and children standing in a long line. Once up close, I watched a young child, a curly brown-haired girl–maybe three or four years old, crawl onto Santa’s lap. I observed this nouveau man in his too-red suit and flat belly that made him look like he was just taking time out from his racquet ball game at the local YMCA. I remembered how I first met the man my small, German community called St. Nick.
It was a typical night in our pre-women’s lib household. My ten-year-old brother Donnie stretched out on the floor to watch “Howdy Doody.” Dad, sitting in the big rocking chair with his right leg hanging over the arm, read the evening newspaper. Mother washed the dishes and dipped them in clean water to rinse as I stood on a chair and wiped them dry with a white kitchen towel. This night, though, I didn’t dilly-dally because I knew that company was arriving soon.
After I hung up the towel to dry, I ran to the living room window and peered out just in time to see two headlights beam into the driveway. No Dasher, no Dancer, no Prancer, no Vixen, just a ’57 Studebaker station wagon screeching to a stop.
“They’re here,” I shouted.
“Big hairy deal,” Donnie mumbled and stared at the TV with his chin cupped in his hands.
How could he just lie there? Didn’t he remember what happened last year?
Soon I heard the screech of porch screen door followed by a loud pounding on the door. Dad laughed but hid behind the newspaper. Mom wiped out the dishpan. Apparently, they weren’t going to make a move to let in the visitors. Without being invited, a red-suited man with a pointed red hat, red blobs on his cheeks and a short, white beard opened the door and walked in. Behind him, brandishing a snake-like whip walked a big man whose name was lost on me. Black soot covered the man’s face and his baggy, brown suit. V-shaped eyebrows rimmed his dark, beady eyes.
The man in red, St. Nick, looked in my direction and roared, “Have you been a good little girl?”
I walked over and stood beside Mother. I wanted desperately to hide my face in hers apron just so I couldn’t see their faces staring down at me, but I knew I was too old for that. Mother smoothed my dark brown curls, nodded, and smiled reassuringly at me.
I looked up as the old red man boomed, “Then what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?”
I swallowed hard and babbled, “Atinytearsandabettycrockerbakeset,” in one long breath.
“Well! Help your mother; obey your father; don’t pout; don’t cry. Then St. Nick will see what he can do. Remember, I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
Out of a big brown sack, that magic bag, the scary man with the black soot on his face pulled a small, paper bag bunched in the middle. He handed it to me. Quickly, I reached out and snatched it from the black, gloved hand before it could grab me. After I said, “Thank you,” I peeked into the bag, smelling peanuts and spicy candy ribbons. I saw a couple of chocolate drops on the top.
“Donald!” bellowed St. Nick. “Stand up here!”
I half hid behind my mother as I peeked at my brother.
“Ah, I don’t believe in you anymore. You’re a fake,” Donald muttered.
Oh no, I thought, here we go again.
The man in brown growled and snapped his whip. Grabbing my brother by his back-belt loop, he shoved him in the big brown sack.
I knew that sack had magic powers. It held everything–candy for good children, charcoal for bad. I knew that my brother was in that bag smothered in charcoal, yet Dad just sat in his chair. I heard him laughing as he kept reading the paper. Mom stood there with her hand covering her mouth. Neither made a move to help my brother.
“Let me out of here. You’re stupid!”
The devilish man untwisted the sack, snapped his long, shiny, black whip and growled as Donnie jumped out. I looked at my brother, except for a very red face and sweat on his forehead, he looked all right–no soot! He didn’t run to Dad or Mom; he just stood there looking at the floor.
“I thought you had learned last year, young man. This is a warning. You’d better watch yourself or there will be nothing under the tree for you this year.”
With another snap of the whip, the sooty man thrust another candy-filled bag at Donnie. Then growling and snapping, the two visitors stomped out the door, hollering, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
I still remember the too-sweet taste of the chocolate drops I ate after our visitors left. Although I do remember receiving the Betty Crocker Bake Set that year, I can’t remember if I received the Tiny Tears or if Donnie was “good.”
Mostly, I remember the dual nature of the holidays–the joyous expectation mixed with dread. Those same dualities have remained. Every Christmas I look forward to buying one new tree ornament, drinking hot apple cider, and singing old carols with my friends and family. But I dread the crowded stores, the hard gift decisions, and baking and frosting cookies. For me, Christmas will always be a magic bag–full of good and bad. Each year I hope for its wonderful gifts–while its demons lurk, waiting.