“Why don’t we celebrate Nikolaus too”, I whined. This first-grader had discovered that her German friends were leaving boots in front of their bedroom doors at night, expecting to find them filled with treats on the morning of the 6th of December. It was 1970 and my entry into real time with Germans was widening my perception of the world and of gift-receiving opportunities.
My Mum sighed. With an 8-month old on her hands, two more daughters entering puberty, all she needed was number three whining.
“Oh, all right, put out your boot and we will see what happens.”
In Germany you say “Wenn zwei sich streiten, dann freut sich der dritte” (When two are arguing, the third one will be happy). I owe a lot of my happy childhood to the fact that my bigger sisters had tired my parents out by the time I came around and it was all “if it stops her from making noise give her what she asks for”. Of course I had to be careful not to exaggerate, but number three is usually surrounded by so much, be it hand-me downs, that asking for your very own was the exception (at least in my mind).
So I placed the boot in front of my bedroom door and went to bed content. Next morning had me hot footing straight to the boot. But what was this? I cried out in despair. The children had told me that naughty kids received a “Rute”, a bunch of twigs tied together that could clear dusty chambers but also served to touch up the hide of a naughty child. And my boot contained such a bunch of twigs.
Had I been naughty? Was I being punished? The idea of a possible hiding shocked me. My parents never hit me. A desperate wail brought my Mum rushing to my side.
“Mummy, I received a Rute. Was I naughty? Only bad children receive a Rute”, I bubbled.
My mothers face became inscrutable as the wheels of her mind geared to top speed and added up all the symbolic weight of the world for a six year old. A split second had passed when she raised an eyebrow near imperceptibly.
Next she interpreted for me very patiently.
“Francesca, look at what is hanging on the bits of twigs. Do you see all the shiny wrappings? They must be full of chocolate. Looks like Nikolaus just uses the twigs to hang up the sweets in.”
“Really?” I looked at the ominous Rute more closely. True, there were lots of small packages tied to it.
I wrapped my mind around this contradictory message. With the help of a few wrapped chocolates I was consoled and accepted this, to my now adult mind, illogical concept.
Much later Nikolaus became the day I received gifts from the Church for my service as choir member and mass servant. The choir conductor dressed up as Nikolaus and arrived with a big book from which he read about our good and bad deeds. It was funny, as he took the opportunity to recount our various exploits, which we did not always want to be reminded of and because he looked quite ridiculous in his outfit. After we received our presents we sat down to hot drinks, cakes and Christmas cookies. It was a way of thanking us for our contributions in time and patience to church and the only way to tell how much we were being thanked was by the size of the present we had received. Nobody was being punished: after all, whatever we gave was voluntary.
When my children met Nikolaus in Kindergarten on a 6th of December, they looked forward to his visit. He gave a little bag of sweets, dried fruits and small toys to every one of them. Sometimes local shops dress up an employee and he gives away oranges, walnuts and a ball for every child that passes by. There are no more books with all your “sins” noted. But not all children are entirely at their ease. Would their parents be of my generation, who still believed that Nikolaus actually would punish us?
On that December 6th of 1970 my mother probably was questioning the need for integration of another peoples tradition into ones own, at all cost, very much.
And I never put the boot out again. Just in case.