Thursday, December 06, 2007

Advent Memories No. 6: Santa Claus

Santa Claus

Did you ever send a letter to Santa? Did you ever visit Santa and “make a list?” Do you still believe in Santa Claus?

I don't know if Thomas and Jasia knew this when they picked December 6th to be the day to write about Santa Claus, but today is St. Nicholas Day. The Dutch brought the feast of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) to America when they settled New Netherlands (modern-day New York state and New Jersey) in the 1600s. St. Nicholas Day was a day of feasting and gift giving for children and sweethearts, and little ones would put out their klompen (wooden shoes) by the hearth filled with hay for the saint's white horse, with hopes that morning would find them refilled with chocolates and little gifts. Naughty children could be expected to find a switch, instead, with a warning that if they were not good, Zwarte Pieter (Black Peter, the good saint's Moor servant) would whisk them away in his large sack, never to be seen or heard from again! Christmas Day was not celebrated as we know it now, but was a solemn, religious day. Over time, with help from Thomas Nast and whoever really wrote "A Visit of St. Nicholas" (a.k.a. "The Night Before Christmas"), the character of the personality we know as Santa Claus developed and evolved.

I don't ever remember sending a letter to Santa Claus. I do know that Santa never flew a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer and one red-nosed one...I know, because I have seen what he really flies in! Since I don't know my aircraft makes and models real well, I'm going to venture to guess that what I've seen Santa arrive in at the city dock of our Southeast Alaskan village was a six-passenger Cessna 180 Skywagon fitted with floats. And he comes from Ketchikan, not the North Pole! Besides, everyone in Alaska knows North Pole is just a village near Fairbanks, and not near the North Pole at all!

Like I said, Santa would arrive from Ketchikan in the Cessna, and all of us schoolkids would have our noses glued to the windows on the bay-side of the classroom, watching him come up the hill. Then we would line up in our hats and coats and head for the ANB - ANS hall, about the distance of a block or so from the school (there were no blocks, or paved roads, for that matter, in Klawock at that time). The Alaskan Native Brotherhood and Alaskan Native Sisterhood is a fraternal organization. Non-natives could be invited to join, but could not vote. The organization's hall was used as gym for basketball tournaments, a funeral chapel for the three-day wakes, and community center for events such as school plays or Santa's visits.

Class by class, we gathered around Santa as he handed out little toys from his bag and gave us plastic netting stocking filled with nuts and oranges. I remember watching Santa have a little problem with his beard. It seemed to not quite stay in place. Interesting!

I don't know how many years Santa came to visit the schoolchildren of Klawock, but I do know that in the mid-1970s, my parents starting incorporating St. Nicholas Day as our main day of celebration. Dad ordered us klompen from the wooden shoe factory in Holland, Michigan, and we put those out and on the hearth of the woodstove that heated our home. St. Nicholas always enjoyed the sandwich I made for him, and his horse loved the sweet marsh grass that Dad had cut and cured the summer before. We were always well rewarded with chocolates, Dutch cheese, and gifts--often books about the Netherlands, or in my mom's case, a Delft Christmas plate to add to her collection.

I still have the two pair of klompen from my childhood, and my children--even as teenagers-- enjoy placing them under the tree (we don't have a hearth) on the evening of December 5th, waiting to see what St. Nicholas brings.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas. Whatever you call him, however you celebrate him, he is the Spirit of Giving that lives in all of us, if ever we let him.

This post is a part of the "Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories" meme created by Thomas and Jasia. You, too, can write your own Christmas memories, either for your personal journal or blog. Click on their names for the list of topics. To see what others have written, go here.
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