I was surprised when I found out that everyone doesn’t celebrate The Feast of St. Nicholas. It was common in our neighborhood, with the Catholic kids especially. My mother didn’t know about St. Nicholas until later in childhood when a neighbor introduced her to the holiday (she’s got a great post about that here). I’m glad it all made an impression on her so her children could enjoy the tradition as well.
Both of my parents had always gotten their gifts on Christmas Eve instead of on Christmas morning when they were children, and so our Christmases were celebrated the same way. We kids were fine with that; it was all we knew. To do it the “traditional” way of waking up on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought would have seemed unnatural to us.
That, though, was another reason to relish St. Nicholas Day. It was our opportunity to hang up our stockings and go to sleep excited at the prospect of what morning would bring.
We never had a fireplace, so some of our methods of “hanging” our stockings were inventive. The one I remember as most common was slinging the loop of the stocking over the nail that held the tiebacks to the window curtains. This worked well because it kept the stockings away from the family dog. However, on one of our early St. Nick mornings in East End, we found out that other creatures had been stirring. When one of us pulled a Nestle’s Crunch Bar out of our stocking, Mom and Grandma immediately noticed the foil wrapper had been torn away at the corner.
“Looks like St. Nick tried to eat this one himself,” they said, taking the candy bar away. At the time I didn’t understand that a mouse must have gotten into the stocking (or into the candy before it was distributed to our stockings). I thought it was pretty cheeky of St. Nick to be sampling our Nestle’s Crunch Bars (although I was very grateful to him for the magnet set he’d left me).
Sometime in the 1950s, Grandma Martha bought a cardboard fireplace and mantel. It was made of corrugated cardboard printed with red bricks, and on the chimney there was a Santa face with clock hands attached to his nose. The “fire” was cardboard flames with cutouts covered with red tissue paper. There was a contraption behind the flames consisting of a Christmas tree light bulb and a small tin propeller. The idea was the heat from the bulb would make the propeller spin, and that in turn would cause fluctuations in the light that would make the flames appear to be dancing. It didn’t work at all, but I didn’t care. That was the only “fireplace” we had in the East End house. When Grandma moved to her big gray house in Oakley, which did have a fireplace and a mantle, she passed the cardboard fireplace to us.
I know we used it at least one year, set up in the living room of our Oakley home (which also did not have a real fireplace, much to my exasperation; many of the houses on our street did have them). That year I finally got to hang my stocking up on St. Nicholas Eve on a real fireplace, or as close as I had ever come. Of course, our stockings were so heavy they pulled out the pin or thumbtack that held them to the cardboard mantel, so we came downstairs to discover our bulging stockings lying on their sides on the mantel. (That was the year I got an assortment of ten cent knickknacks from Woolworth’s, which didn’t help.)
The cardboard fireplace didn’t hold together well, and I don’t remember us putting it up much after that first year, if at all. Mom probably got tired of it and put it out for the trash one day. By then it was a stretch to imagine the fireplace was real anyhow.
I live in an apartment now, and I actually made myself a fake mantel out of an unpainted shelf, two supports I nailed together out of standard cut wood from the hardware store, and some old architectural details I’d bought on a whim. I really enjoy my little “fireplace.” I don’t even try to pretend its real; I simply decorate it for each season and enjoy the illusion.
Note: The hanging pictured at the top of this post is from a design by Kindred Spirits. It combines rug hooking and wool crazy quilt section. As with all my projects, I didn’t plan this out ahead of time. Consequently, I kept running short of red and had to keep ripping sections out and working in other strips of wool in various degrees of red. It came out okay in the end. The hooked Santa now hangs over my mother’s piano each Christmas season.