Josna Rege

85. St. Nicholas’ Day

In 1960s, Childhood, Greece, India, Stories on December 6, 2010 at 10:23 am

As children, no matter where in the world we were living, on December the 6th—St. Nicholas’ Day—we always put our Christmas lists in one of our shoes. In the morning the lists would be gone, and there would be candy in the shoes. There was always the mild threat that if we had been bad children we would find coal in them, but that never happened.

I don’t know where the custom came from, since I doubt if it was a tradition in our mother’s family and it certainly wasn’t in our father’s. I don’t remember whether we put the list out on the eve or the night of St. Nicholas’ Day; we didn’t quite know who  St. Nicholas was, although we assumed that he was Father Christmas. But once our lists had been accepted, the magical Christmas season officially began.

After that day we were not to ask for or get anything for ourselves, only for others. It’s strange how firmly that idea is fixed in my head, yet I don’t remember anyone ever telling me as much explicitly. Another unwritten rule was that it was only after December the 6th that we could start singing Christmas carols (just as after January 6th, Twelfth Night, we had to stop singing them).

On December 6th in 1963, while we were in England preparing to leave for India, Auntie Bette took us down to the West End of London to see the Christmas lights. Those were the early years of the West End lights, in the days before before austerity measures and the energy crisis forced them to be severely cut back, even stopped for a time, and all the big department stores on Oxford Street had extravagant displays inside and out. I remember Selfridges in particular, which had turned a whole floor, it seemed, into Santa’s workshop, a wonderland full of mechanical yet completely lifelike elves each working on a toy, with everything beautifully crafted down to the finest details.

In India we sent out our Christmas cards and waited for cards to arrive—from England, mostly—treasuring each one and keeping a running count of how many we had received. To this day I count our cards and give each one a special pride of place, though the numbers have been dwindling in recent years. My father used to make our Christmas cards every year, since in the 1960s cards of any kind in India were hard to come by. (Hard to believe, with the Hallmark-ization of Indian society since the Nineties.) I remember one year when he made a particularly spectacular set, using colored Sellotape, each one a unique stained glass window depicting a different Christmas scene. I wish we still had one of those cards.

christmas-carols-greece-50s

Calanda in 1950s Greece

The tree was something that went up on Christmas Eve and stayed up for all twelve days of Christmas. It was only in America that we started getting our tree earlier in December. In Greece in the early Sixties December 25th wasn’t the focus of Chrstmas (New Year’s Day and Epiphany, on January 6th, being equally if not more important), so trees were not available earlier. My lasting memory of the Christmas season in Athens is of the little boys caroling at our door, their clear high voices accompanied by the tinkling of triangles. They had a small repertoire of traditional carols, calanda, of which I remember only Kalin Esperan Arxontes and Simera ta Fota.

In those days we used to have candles on our tree, not electric lights. One evening when my mother, sister, and I were at the dinner table the tree caught alight. In panic, my mother leapt up, heaved up the barrel of retsina, the cheap and plentiful Greek wine, that was in the other corner of the dining room, and poured it all over the tree. Unfortunately, the alcohol only made it blaze all the merrier. By the time Dad got home from work Mum had  managed to put the fire out, but he was furious to find all the retsina gone.

In India there were no pine trees, at least not in Kharagpur, but there was a row of tall Casuarinas somewhere on the IIT campus. One year Dad climbed one of them—illegally, no doubt—and brought home a huge branch as our Christmas tree. He put it up on Christmas Eve and in the morning it had been magically transformed, decorated and artfully covered with snow made from cotton wool. That year a mysterious parcel had arrived from Auntie Angy in England, and on Christmas morning there was a small white boot on the tree edged with bright red. Father Christmas, it seemed, had accidentally left his boot behind while he was decorating the tree. We still have that boot in our Christmas decorations and I put it on the tree every year.

It was a big deal for Father Christmas to make the commitment to honor our Christmas requests, because in many cases he had to make them himself. One year my sister Sally asked for a doll’s house, and another year I had wanted stilts, neither of which would have been available in Pujara’s general store in Kharagpur. But on Christmas morning there was a large model house under the tree, fully furnished, with every detail lovingly hand-crafted; and the next, an ingeniously designed pair of wooden stilts with adjustable height settings. From the sounds I had heard as I lay there sleepless on Christmas Eve, it seemed that my parents were providing some material assistance to Father Christmas for some of the finishing touches on his handiwork.

I carried on the St. Nicholas tradition with Nikhil and he wrote a polite note to Santa every year in his meticulous handwriting, careful not to be too greedy. Like us, he never got any coal in his shoe, either, although one year it was ominously smudged with black on the inside, along with the candy. Proving its authenticity, the candy in Nikhil’s shoe was always exotic, with no recognizable brand names on it. No Universal Price Codes at the North Pole!

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  1. I’ve been so enjoying your stories, Josna. This one in particular reminds me of Christmas in India with my in-laws a few years ago. I made a tree for us out of construction paper and we all opened presents around it in a chilly guest house near Delhi. Of course, the fancy hotel where we went for brunch had all the proper decorations, but I still love my little paper tree best. Christmas is my favourite holiday, though I hate to admit it. Must be all those British children’s stories I grew up on as a kid.

    • Lovely to hear from you, Swati (and your sweet comment came just as I was feeling a little bereft and wondering why no one was responding to this latest story). I can just imagine your little handmade tree and the chilly guest house. Funny, isn’t it, how much colder Delhi winters are? No surprise, really, when one thinks that in most houses the windows aren’t made to close and there’s no central heating. I will write to you separately to find out whether you are going to be at MLA; in any case, enjoy the holidays and hope to see you in the New Year. x J

  2. Dearest extraordinary story-teller,
    This one is a real classic! Your lovely Christmas traditions and beautiful remembrances of them warm my heart! Thank you for continuing to write this blog even though you don’t always get the feedback right away.
    I am standing at my desk and typing this a few words at a time, as my back will permit.
    The warm sunny day outside with the California perennial Summer seems far away when I read your story and remember Christmases at Whispering Pines when I was growing up. It was always very cold there as well, but indoors we always had a blazing wood fire going in the fireplace and every year my mom would rustle up a wonderful dinner table full of delights which all our friends would come and share as we sang carols into the night some night just before Christmas.
    Looking back, it always amazes me how many friends we had of other traditions of faith or no faith who would plan their whole Christmas holiday around that caroling party and would not miss it for anything. It seems that wonderful tradition of lusty carol singing has gone down in many people’s memories as essential to a Shillong Christmas. I know that tradition goes on in Heaven now as more of my family join the angels.

    • Dear Marianne, caroling is always the best part of Christmas for me. I have a vivid memory of one Christmas Day in Kharagpur when one of my presents was a book of paper dolls. I am sitting alone on the front verandah pressing out the dolls, cutting out their outfits, and singing “The First Nowell.” What a feeling of complete contentment! Another memory: Twelfth Night, also in Kharagpur, singing every single Christmas carol I knew before midnight, knowing that it would be a full year before I could sing any of them again. Or my first Christmas in America, when our friend Norah organized a caroling outing around the neighborhood in Brookline. When we knocked at one door it was opened by an Italian family having their Christmas Eve feast: we were all invited in and plied with food and drink before they let us go back out into the cold. Here’s to fireplaces and warm hearts!

  3. A wonderful post, as always, so rich in evocative detail. The story of the doll house is sweet, like something from a book. I’m a sucker for Christmas lights and am a bit sad to see fewer and fewer houses putting them up, too. And now, thanks to you and Google Images, I know what a casuarina is!

    • Ooh, “like something from a book”!
      It’s time to put up our decorations, but first I have to clean the house, in breaks from grading. Winter lethargy had taken hold, but with today’s solstice, I can just feel the return of the sun. x J

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