Money is the next best thing to find in your shoes

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The Feast of St Nicolas, Jan Steen, 1683-85

Hero to generations of Dutch children, St Nicolas has his day on Dec 6, the reported date of his death. Epitomized by coins secretly left in shoes, his abundant gift-giving is the saint’s most well-known reputation. Of course it is.

As well as the patron saint of thieves and pawnbrokers, this Turkish bishop became patron saint of children according to two legendary actions.

In one he revived three boys murdered by an innkeeper and in another surreptitiously paid a poor man not to prostitute his daughters. The boys had been salted to be sold as hams and unwittingly preserved for rescue. For the three daughters, St Nick just threw bags of gold at their house probably scaring their father straight as well as buying off his conscience.

In a different story of the three daughters, Nick throws the gold down the chimney where freshly washed stockings were hung with care to dry. In fell the gold. The bags are sometimes golden balls. Easier to throw they also resemble oranges allowing parents to explain to their deserving children why they can’t get gold every year.

Some bad behaviour was allowed on the day. One record from 1686 has school boys given the ‘priviledge to breake open their Masters Cellar-dore’. (John Aubrey, Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme) Boy bishops were also elected on Dec 6 and served until Dec 28 with all the rights of a real bishop including the awesome power of preaching a sermon. I assume a real bishop was nearby with a birch rod so his fresh counterpart would not be spared if he spoiled the moment. Some English towns named them St Nicolas for the duration of their office. Londoners liked the show so much, the parade of various Nicolases was banned in 1554 for unruliness as most 16th century Christmas celebrations were.

Clement Clarke Moore’s poem changes the bishop to a ‘right jolly old elf’. Fellow New Yorker Washington Irving brought St Nick to America first in A History of New York. Oloffe Van Kortlandt, one of the founders of the first Dutch colony in America, fell asleep under a tree. He saw St Nick riding in a wagon through the sky on his year’s charity. Nicolas, never one to desert a fellow Netherlander, parked nearby and lit his pipe at Oloffe’s fire.

In the smoke, Oloffe saw a city rise. Then, “laying his finger beside his nose”, St Nicolas winked and flew off. On waking, Oloffe founded the city of New Amsterdam where he had slept. He was a good citizen in everyone’s mind, as Irving writes, when he was asleep. If only he’d taken off his shoes. He might be rich too.

Winter – in the thick of it

Today was the Winter Solstice. That’s not news to any of you, I’m sure. To most in North America it’s the start of Winter. The official start. Growing up in Canada, I always knew Winter snuck in around Dec 1 – the calendar be damned. To many others, especially in northern Europe, it’s midwinter. Now, is this just a colloquialism or do they really mean it? Was my childhood self right that Winter came earlier than the learned astronomer said, when I felt that chill go up my spine as November ended?

Ancient Celts and other Gaelic peoples marked the end of summer on Nov 1 or Samhain. The Venerable Bede mentions two periods of midwinter, early Yule and later Yule, December and January. This was later condensed to the 12 days around Christmas. Yule became merely a synonym for Christmas in the 11th C BCE.

Today was the astronomical start of the sun’s northward journey. It’s gone as far south as it can on its east-west track and now heads northwards. Apparently it appeared to pause in the sky around noon but I was told never to look at the sun so I took no notice.

To the learned astronomer, ranged in columns, it’s the start of Winter. To millions of Gaels in spirit, it’s merely the high point. To the rest of us, I suppose Winter should begin whenever we feel it. Today in the state of Maryland, the temps hit 70 Fahrenheit so Winter was delayed a day. So was this post because – did you get that – it was 70 today! In the middle of winter! Or the start of it. Or – oh, I don’t know! I saw a bee this afternoon crawling on the ground. I’m going out to ask him. Maybe he’ll sting me and I’ll forget all about it.

About that song…

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On the first day of Christmas that partridge in a pear tree is apparently French. Partridges are largely ground birds. According to the Annotated Mother Goose by William and Ceil Baring-Gould, the only partridge to perch in a tree is the Red Leg variety. A native to France, it was only successfully introduced to England in the 1770s leading scholars to believe the song has French roots. Citing the idea that the partridge abandons its young, the Baring-Goulds also speculate it points to the fickleness of the song’s gift-giver.

That pear tree might indicate an old Christmas superstition: backing into a pear tree and circling it three times was supposed to reveal a girl’s true love.

On the second day, the turtle doves – as with most doves – are a symbol of love and devotion.

On the third day, those French hens may come specifically from Brittany. That is, the Breton coast of France. And you should see how many antique shops and furniture stores called Three French Hens you get when you Google it.

On the fourth day, they’re not calling birds. Traditionally, they are colly birds. Or coal-black birds. Or, more directly, black birds. They do sing prettily.

On the fifth day, those gold rings – again according to the inspired Baring-Goulds – may refer to the rings on the necks of the ringed pheasant. They may also be a corruption of goldspink, another name for the goldfinch. That would be a lot of pheasant. The goldfinch, I suppose, would not be for eating.

The Baring-Goulds thus point out the first seven days are filled with birds – especially so after those goose eggs hatch. I hope this lady really likes geese. I feel her true love might be laying it on a bit thick. Some people – when they don’t know what to give,  they go all out.

Doesn’t explain days eight through twelve. Is she supposed to keep those maids and lords and whatnot? They’re probably just hired for the day which goes to show people have over-spent on Christmas for centuries.

Lastly, those milk-maids. There’s no cows mentioned. So – what are they milking? Maybe the birds. The “true love” sure is.

So it’s the 18th…

And if you celebrate Christmas, you’re looking forward to good times. Hopefully. “It is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt,” says Dickens through the mouth of his charity solicitor in A Christmas Carol. That most popular of ghost stories wasn’t the only one Dickens wrote nor the only he published at Christmas.

The English of the 19th C had no lack of ghost stories. Telling ghost stories was a winter tradition for the English and probably Northern Europeans. Scandinavian myths are full of a enough strange tales to freeze the icy heart of Greenland forever. Dickens took the tradition to the fore. He included a Christmas ghost story in Pickwick Papers (1836), followed it up with A Christmas Carol and made the publication of “a ghostly little tale” a yearly habit for much of his career. One appropriately named Christmas Ghosts, a little tale of family ghosts.

So, if your Want this year only includes what to read and you love A Christmas Carol, here’s some additional antique holiday reading for your perusal between cups of nog and Irish cream:

The Goblins who Stole a Sexton: an early Dickens Christmas story more picaresque than the nostalgia of A Christmas Carol. A fun read nonetheless.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain: more sinister than Scrooge’s visit with a main character much more sympathetic from the start. Dickens is in high art here, his descriptions of a cold Winter night pushed right to the limit. Shades of Scrooge’s distraught love for his sister is a main force for the story.

Old Christmas, Washington Irving: on a 17 year stay in England, American author Irving made friends with the Bracebridges, an old country family. Squire Bracebridge, the family head, kept to the antiquated Christmas customs and did all he could to recreate them including the boar’s head brought in on a platter, the pageant led by the Lord of Misrule and the hanging of mistletoe. Visiting the family over Christmas Eve, Irving included a remembrance of the night and the following day in his Sketch Book (1826). The Bracebridge Christmas celebration was a bit of an oddity until then. Interest increased after Irving’s book hit big. Dickens himself was a fan of the whole book, influencing him to write The Pickwick Papers. Randolph Caldecott later illustrated these selections of the Sketch Book, publishing them as Old Christmas in 1886. If Dickens is credited with bringing Christmas back to the city, Irving can be considered to have brought it first from the dark fields of English country lore.