St. Nicholas Day in Austria so many years ago

Today is Saint Nikolaus day, and in a few hours, right after dawn, little children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and many other countries, will sit in the living room and kitchen, huddled up together waiting for the Saint to arrive. Even now fifty years later and five thousand miles away, I still celebrate the day and I remember my childhood.

Saint Nicholas, who became the inspiration for today’s Santa, is widely known for his wisdom. Children all over the world know about his big, golden book full of the names of the children he will visit. He has watched them throughout the years, knows if they have been good or bad.

When your name is called, you get up and you bow in front of St. Nicholas, then you recite the little poem you learned, or you sing the song they taught you in kindergarten or pre-school. Without it, your chance to get anything is rather slim.

Good children get a gift, mostly fruits, and nuts, sometimes even gingerbread cookies. The bad kids get the switch and some children who misbehaved badly even get transported away, in a gigantic jute sack or basket to be never seen again.

I had been waiting for St. Nicholas Day. The shoes I had put out at our backdoor hadn’t been filled yet. I wondered if St. Nicholas would find them in time. I had written him a letter, had left it on the window seal and I know the angels had taken it to him because one morning it had been gone.

I was a bit scared. I had been a good girl most of the year, but there had been incidents when I had forgotten to behave. I didn’t stay out of the creek, had been in trouble numerous times because I couldn’t resist temptation. My Grandma had warned me, had mentioned St. Nicholas a few times, but then it all seemed so far away. Why would you worry about being a good girl in summer, when there was still so much time left before winter?

Soon he would arrive. The neighbor’s children and their parents had come by to save St. Nicholas a trip to their farms. I had snuck out, was upstairs in my room. I sat on the radiator, nose pressed against the window, and hoped I would be able to the holy man arrive.

He walks the mountains on food, or rides on a horse. So many stories had been told, I wasn’t sure which was correct. Turned out they all had been wrong. St. Nicholas arrived in a white Volkswagen Beetle, the same car that Mr. Jager drove, the baker in the nearby village.

I run down the stairs and sat with the other kids on the sofa in the good living room, the one we hardly used.

We heard him come in, his heavy boots made loud noises. He stood at the window across from us and looked at all of us for a very long time. Even the adults were quiet, not a sound could be heard. Then St. Nicholas sat down, opened his golden book, and started calling our names.

Michael, the neighbor’s kid, was called first. It served him well. I knew he would be in trouble. We all were curious if he would get the switch for the parents to discipline him. St. Nicholas started listing the things Michael had done wrong but left him with a warning. He got a jute sack full of apples, mandarines and nuts to take with him.

I didn’t have to worry a thing, if Michael survived so would I.

A short while later, my name was called. “Bridget…step forward, please,” and so I did.

I bowed and when he asked me to recite my poem, my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember a word, starred at this saints shoes. Hiking boots, just like the ones Mr. Jager wore in the store. Same car, same shoes. It puzzled me.

I started the Nicholaus song I loved so much, St. Nicholaus smiled at me.

He started reading out of his book. I had forgotten some of the things he mentioned, it seemed he had watched me closely. He knew I hadn’t don’t my chores all the time, I knew I had been lying about being in the creek, and he told me I hadn’t been nice to the neighbor’s kid.

When I looked up, I could see the watch on his wrist. A shiny gold watch, it was beautiful, I would always remember. I had never seen anything like it.

When he asked me if I would try to be a good girl from now on, I nodded sincerely. It’s not that I hadn’t been trying, it was just really hard. The Saint smiled and gave me a jute bag with mandarines, nuts, and Lebkuchen. I noticed I had gotten away with a few things. Maybe he had been watching other kids and had overlooked some of my mistakes because of it.

When Petra was called, she started stuttering, but remembered the poem. All other kids were rewarded as well, nobody in our home ended up with the switch.

When he wanted to leave and asked us to be good, Michael got up and suggest St. Nicholas could take his dad with him, because his dad had been mean to him. Some adults started chuckling, St. Nicholas’s made a funny snorting noise but said nothing.

He nodded and waved goodbye, then he left the room and the farm, he drove off in the white Volkswagen Beetle, the same car Michael’s dad Mr. Jager drove.

A few months later I noticed Mr. Jager’s watch when I had been sent to buy rolls for our summer guests. When I saw the watch I knew St. Nicholas was not real anymore.

23 thoughts on “St. Nicholas Day in Austria so many years ago

  1. I loved this story from your childhood, Bridget. It’s so interesting how as children we can observe details in our own “Santa” or “St. Nicholas” experiences that don’t quite add up, or would ordinarily cause us to be skeptical, but the desire to hold onto the magic is so strong we can push those pesky details away. Thanks so much for sharing. I didn’t know half the details of St. Nicholas Day observances and I learned so much!

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  2. That’s a lovely story. We celebrate it here as well, and it’s called Sinterklaas. I found out he wasn’t real when at the scouts, he was played by a dad of a kid in my class and I *hated* him with a passion. So when I heard his voice I snapped. When he asked me to sit on his lap, I declined and had to refrain myself from saying something terribly bad, that’s now much I hated this man…
    We always celebrated it with my dad’s parents. First with my aunt and uncle and my two cousins. Grandma would play songs on her organ (the best part of the evening for me!) and then their neighbors would put the bags with prezzies in front of the door and bang it. I have such fond memories…
    When we got older, my grandparents would celebrate with us separate, and with my aunt, uncle and cousins on another evening. Grandma LOVED celebrating it and it were great evenings… Until she passed away in Austria while on vacation. Then, we never celebrated it again. It’s been 25 years since she passed and I still miss her and the best evenings of the years…. β™₯

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  3. What a sweet story! I wonder how old you were when this happened. The St. Nick tradition continued in my family – but a bit changed. Growing up, we put up stockings the night before and were rewarded with candy. I remember one time I made a comment to my mom about St. Nick coming tonight. A bit later, she had to make a trip to the store. I’m not sure if I believed before that, but I know I didn’t after. πŸ™‚

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  4. Happy St. Nicholas Day!πŸŽ…πŸ’•βœ¨ It’s very good to know more about such a wonderful ritual day. I’ve only known of him getting popular on Christmas eveπŸ˜‚ I’d celebrate 12/6 from now on❀️

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  5. That was a wonderful read.
    Mr. Jagar sounds like he enjoyed the event, though, I’m sure he would have been the harbinger of the end of the fantasy for many children! I love that he arrived in a Volkswagen Beetle. πŸ™‚
    Happy St. Nicholas Day!

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