by Christine Natale, an experienced Waldorf kindergarten teacher
A long time ago (late 70's) when I was in my Foundation Year in New York, my first husband and I decided we wanted to "do" Christmas in a different way. We had both been raised with the "million presents" under the Christmas tree 1950s/60s/70s mentality and we knew we didn't want that anymore.
We came up with our own way and continued it through our ten years together. We didn't have any children, so we did it for each other, but we always thought it would be very much fun in a bigger family.
The first part is to "play Saint Nicholas" by baking loaves of Nicholas bread (any kind of bread you like—we put candied fruit and nuts in a yeast bread with an icing cross on top). Then we gift wrapped them and attached a card that just said "From Saint Nicholas." Then we (yes, we really did this!) went out at night on Saint Nicholas Eve (December 5), hung them on people's doors, rang the doorbell and ran! We never saw any reaction or heard about it at all later, but it was so much fun and adrenaline- pumping just to do! You could, of course give cookies or anything you want to. It was actually more fun than Trick-or-Treating! Many years later, I filled large gift bags with grocery goodies and left them on the doorsteps of some elderly friends. They suspected me, but I wouldn't confess.
The next part was about our gifts to each other. We put up our tree on Christmas Eve and made a creche scene for under it. That was all—no presents. It was unbelievably hard to see it that way on Christmas morning after our lifelong conditioning, even though we knew what we were going to do!
For the next twelve days, the Twelve Holy Nights, Saint Nicholas left gifts for us!! Really! We never knew where they would pop up or when. One night, we went out to the movies and when we came home, there was a big easel in the living room for me. I never did find out how it got there! All the gifts had tags that said "From Saint Nicholas" and we hotly denied having given them to each other!
The idea, which would work especially well with children, I think, is that no one would really know who gave them the gift! But the person giving it would know, which would make it more fun in some ways for the giver than the receiver. Then, at dinner on Epiphany (Twelfth Night) everyone would have to guess who really gave their gifts and the real "St. Nicholas" would have to confess.
As I said, having grown up with "hoards" under the tree, it was really kind of awful the first year. But it got to be so much fun that we never looked back after that. Presents appeared in the refrigerator, under pillows, in the car, anywhere!
I have had many experiences, first with my own family of origin and then later as a nanny, where the children plow through the pile of presents and then burst into tears when there aren't any more! It's an overload and each gift doesn't mean very much, really. Spreading it out over the Holy Nights makes Christmas last—it's not all build up and bust. The gifts don't need to be flashy and expensive (as you already know) and everyone doesn't get one every day. Again, helping the children make things for each other and the other spouse and figuring out where and when to hide them keeps the momentum going.
One year, I was staying with a family in the Seattle area. I was trying to help a small school starting there and ended up meeting and living with a family of musicians with 4 (then 5) children. It happened that the night of St. Nicholas Eve, Pam and Philip had gone into Seattle to do a concert and I was taking care of the boys. Geoffrey was 8 or 9, Brenin was 6 or 7 and the twins, Morgan and Marshall were 5. Pam and Philip were and are very special and spiritual people. Pam called me and we realized that we hadn't prepared anything. I really didn't have anything except a loaf of cranberry nut bread I had baked and some shiny quarters. Well, I sliced and wrapped up the bread (the boys hadn't seen me baking it) and put a slice and a quarter in their shoes. Luckily, I always travel with glitter and I sprinkled it from their shoes around the house and out the door into the forest (they live in a rural area). We also had a bunch of carrots with the leaves on and I left them for the donkey (partially eaten). Then, I wrote a scroll, with the messages for each person from Saint Nicholas, tied it with a red ribbon and left it with the shoes. Pam and Philip got in during the wee hours and the boys woke them up shortly after, full of the magic and wonder. It SO doesn't matter how big or small the gift—it really is the magic that is important.About Santa Claus—when I introduce Saint Nicholas I explain that he lived in the "Old World" called Europe, far across the ocean. When people moved to the "New World" on this side, Saint Nicholas needed a helper. So he asked Santa Claus to come to the children in America. After a while, people in the "New World" forgot about Saint Nicholas and about asking him to come. But Saint Nicholas is very magical and will come if the children and their parents ask him to. Sometimes, if Saint Nicholas has come to a family, Santa Claus doesn't need to and he just sends his Christmas blessings as he carries on to visit the children who don't remember about Saint Nicholas. The children always seemed pretty satisfied with this explanation.
In the Waldorf Kindergarten, I would send home a note asking the parents to send a pair of their children's best shoes. We set up our circle of chairs before we left with our shoes on them. When we came back the next day, there was a golden nut, an orange, a cookie or small candy cane and a tiny present. I remember one year it was a little wooden top. And if Saint Nicholas couldn't visit us in person, there was always a scroll tied with red ribbon for teacher to read what he had to tell each child.
I created a series of stories to use in the Kindergarten in the days leading up to Saint Nicholas Day on December 6. I couldn't find stories to explain many of the European traditions such as the shoes, golden nut, etc., so I looked into my heart and came up with "fairy tale truth" which may not be worldly fact, but true in its meaning. These have been posted here on the Saint Nicholas Center website for many years.
A couple other St. Nicholas notes from Christine Natale:
Quick note about Saint Nicholas' gifts. As you will see in the stories we have linked to, Saint Nicholas gives what is needed to help us with our weaknesses. Toys are wonderful, but even better when they are chosen especially with a gentle lesson in mind. For example, a daughter or son of say, 8 years old who puts up a fuss about helping in the kitchen. They might receive their own cooking or baking utensils, a fun cookbook, chef's hat and apron. A child who doesn't like to pick up his or her toys might receive a helping gnome with a little book or verse about keeping tidy. You get the idea. The older children in the family may enjoy discussing with you what they think the younger (or older) children really need. We are very fortunate that there are so many Waldorf orienting shops online that offer meaningful gifts. But the hope is that over time, the child will come to enjoy making or helping to buy really meaningful gifts for others. Don't forget the "service" gifts—for example a handmade picture showing the recipient what kind of help the giver will give. Help in the garden, babysitting, special cleaning, etc..
One more thing—you can ask Saint Nicholas to come to your house in many magical ways. You can go out on a starry night and ask the stars to show him the way. You can write a letter to him and burn it in the fireplace so that the smoke will go tell him to come. You can put out a dish of porridge for the fairies, gnomes or tomtens and ask them to go fetch him. Or you can just kneel by the bed and pray for him to come.
You can put out cookies and milk for him and Rupert, but don't forget the carrots for his donkey!
Six St. Nicholas Stories for the days before St. Nicholas Day, December 6
by Christine Natale
Fairy Tales by Christine Natale, Straw Into Gold Press, 2010. A collection of fifteen original fairy tales, 3-4 for each season, gentle stories created for Waldorf kindergarten.
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