A Christmas Memory
by John Pape
As we pause to celebrate Christmas and the holiday season, we also remember back to those holidays of the past and the memories that will always be part of us. We hope the sharing of this holiday memory will help us all think back to earlier times of family and happiness as we all gather to make memories of the future.
When I was growing up, Christmas was always the most joyous time of the year. Our family loved Christmas so much that we—like many Texas Hill Country Germans—held a "dress rehearsal" of sorts in early December.
What I'm talking about is St. Nicholas Day or, more appropriately, the Feast of St. Nicholas. Through a multi-generational mingling of cultures, many old-time Hill Country families of German descent observed St. Nicholas Day every Dec. 6, followed by a traditional Christmas 19 days later.
No sooner than we had finished the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers than my family would gather around the dinner table once again for the Feast of St. Nicholas. After dinner, the old folks would tell us kids about Christmas when they were young, and then admonish us to be off to bed so St. Nicholas could come around and check on us.
That night, we were told, St. Nicholas would check on all the little boys and girls. He would make certain that they were all properly asleep, had been minding their elders and were being good.
Before we kids went to bed, we would tie a stocking around the bedpost. In the morning, we would know if St. Nicholas was pleased with us or if we were about to be in deep trouble for Christmas.
If we had been good, we would find nuts, fresh fruit and candy in our stockings. If we had been bad, we'd find lumps of charcoal and switches. Charcoal and switches was a message that we needed to seriously change our ways before Christmas or Santa would leave more of the same under the Christmas tree.
I never personally knew of a kid who got charcoal and switches, but the old folks always made sure to tell us tales of kids who had. I took no chances—I was on my best behavior from Halloween on.
Just before St. Nicholas Day, there was always a mad rush to find the largest stocking in the house. Early on, Oma—my grandmother—had forbidden the use of her nylons. She said they were too expensive to take a chance of getting them torn up—especially if I ended up with a delivery of charcoal and switches.
One year, a few days before St. Nicholas' annual visit, I saw some fancy decorated Christmas stockings in a store window downtown. Some of them were even ready-filled with candy and toys. I, of course, asked Oma if I could have one of the big, decorated stockings in the store window.
I was too young to understand just how little money we had in those days, especially with Christmas just around the corner. Oma could tell how disappointed I was when she told me we couldn't afford one of the fancy stockings, but they were just too expensive. Instead, she offered to help me track down the biggest stocking we could find in the house to tie on my bedpost for St. Nicholas.
After turning the house upside down, we settled on one of Opa's big, over-the-calf hunting socks. They were old, ugly and had holes in them, but they were the biggest socks we could find.
On that particular St. Nicholas Eve, after the adults had finished their meal, my great-grandmother—Big Oma, as I called her—asked if I had my stocking ready for St. Nicholas' visit. I showed her Opa's big sock dangling from the bedpost.
"It's not very pretty, is it?" she observed.
I shook my head no, but explained it was the biggest stocking I could find.
"Well, what it looks like won't make any difference to St. Nicholas," Big Oma explained to me. "He's only interested in how good you've been. Now go say your prayers extra hard and get to sleep. St. Nicholas will be here soon and you don't want him to find you awake."
For a while, I couldn't get to sleep, pondering whether kids with decorated stockings get more goodies than those of us without. It just seemed that fancy stockings would catch St. Nicholas' eye and impress him just like they did me when I first saw one in that store window.
Then I remembered what Big Oma had said: St. Nicholas didn't care about the stocking; he cared about the little boys and girls. Big Oma always seemed to know everything, so she couldn't be wrong about something as important as that.
I said my prayers, asking God to bless all my relatives and to watch over St. Nicholas as he made his rounds. I also told God that I was going to try and be extra good so I might get a fancy stocking for next year.
The next morning, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked at the bedpost. Something was horribly wrong—Opa's big, ugly hunting sock was gone.
I just couldn't have been that bad, I thought to myself as I scrambled across the bed to see if it had fallen on the floor.
Not only did St. Nicholas not leave me anything, he took the stocking!
Then I turned around and saw it—tied to the top of the headboard was the biggest, prettiest decorated stocking I'd ever seen.
It was red with green trim. It had glitter and sequins all over it. Best of all, it had my name written across the top.
Inside was an inviting collection of oranges, apples, pecans and rock candy. Under it all was a note that read: "Hope you like your new stocking—St. Nicholas."
What I was too young to realize was that St. Nicholas' printing looked suspiciously like Big Oma's. It wasn't until many years later that I learned Big Oma had used scraps of cloth to hand-sew the stocking for me. Then she decorated it to look as much like the store-window stockings as possible.
All I knew at the time was that I had a fancy decorated stocking and I was as happy with it as I was with the goodies inside.
Over the years, the stocking has been lost. That's a shame because it was one of those personal treasures money can never buy.
But I still have the memory of the stocking St. Nicholas gave me—and that memory will be with me forever.
By John Pape, FortBentNow.com, Houston, Texas, December 24, 2010. Used by permission.