Advent: 5

Children, beware! Apparently, I’m rather drawn to these stories of a St. Nicholas figure coming to scold as well as to reward. 🙂

THE FESTIVAL OF SAINT NICHOLAS
From Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates
By Mary Mapes Dodge

Christmas Day is devoted by the Hollanders to church rites and pleasant family visiting. It is on Saint Nicholas’ Eve that their young people become half wild with joy and expectation. To some of them it is a sorry time, for the saint is very candid and if any of them have been bad during the past year, he is quite sure to tell them so. Sometimes he carries a birch rod under his arm and advises the parents to give them scoldings in place of confections, and floggings instead of toys. It was well that the boys hastened to their abodes on that bright winter evening, for in less than an hour afterward, the saint made his appearance in half the homes of Holland. He visited the king’s palace and in the selfsame moment appeared in Annie Bouman’s comfortable home. Probably one of our silver half dollars would have purchased all that his saintship left at the peasant Bouman’s; but a half-dollars worth will sometimes do for the poor what hundreds of dollars may fail to do for the rich; it makes them happy and grateful, fills them with new peace and love.

Hilda van Gleck’s little brothers and sisters were in a high state of excitement that night. They had been admitted into the grand parlor; they were dressed in their best, and had been given two cakes a piece at supper. Hilda was as joyous as any. Why not? Saint Nicholas would never cross a girl of fourteen from his list, just because she was tall and looked almost like a woman. On the contrary, he would probably exert himself to do honor to such an august-looking damsel. Who could tell? So she sported and laughed and danced as gaily as the youngest, and was the soul of all their merry games. Father, mother, and grandmother looked on approvingly; so did grandfather, before he spread his large red handkerchief over his face, leaving only the top of his skullcap visible.This kerchief was his ensign of sleep.

Earlier in the evening all had joined in the fun. In the general hilarity, there had seemed to be a difference only in bulk between grandfather and the baby. Indeed a shade of solemn expectation, now and then flitting across the faces of the younger members, had made them seem rather more thoughtful than their elders. Now the spirit of fun reigned supreme. The very flames danced and capered in the polished grate. A pair of prim candles that had been staring at the astral lamp began to wink at other candles far away in the mirrors. There was a long bellrope suspended from the ceiling in the corner, made of glass beads netted over a cord nearly as thick as your wrist. It generally hung in the shadow and made no sign; but tonight it twinkled from end to end. Its handle of crimson glass sent reckless dashes of red at the papered wall, turning its dainty blue stripes into purple. Passers-by halted to catch the merry laughter floating, through curtain and sash, into the street, then skipped on their way with a startled consciousness that the village was wide awake. At last matters grew so uproarious that the grandsire’s red kerchief came down from his face witha jerk. What decent old gentleman could sleep in such a racket! Mynheervan Gleck regarded his children with astonishment. The baby even showed symptoms of hysterics. It was high time to attend to business.

Madame suggested that if they wished to see the good Saint Nicholas they should sing the same loving invitation that had brought him the year before.The baby stared and thrust his fist into his mouth as Mynheer put him down upon the floor. Soon he sat erect, and looked with a sweet scowl at the company. With his lace and embroideries, and his crown of blue ribbon and whalebone (for he was not quite past the tumbling age), he looked like the king of the babies.The other children, each holding a pretty willow basket, formed at once in a ring, and moved slowly around the little fellow, lifting their eyes, meanwhile, for the saint to whom they were about to address themselves was yet in mysterious quarters. Madame commenced playing softly upon the piano; soon the voices rose—gentle, youthful voices—rendered all the sweeter for their tremor:

“Welcome, friend!
Saint Nicholas, welcome!
Bring no rod for us, tonight!
While our voices bid thee, welcome,
Every heart with joy is light!
Tell us every fault and failing,
We will bear thy keenest railing,
So we sing—so we sing—
Thou shalt tell us everything!
Welcome, friend!
Saint Nicholas, welcome!
Welcome to this merry band!
Happy children greet thee, welcome!
Thou art glad’ning all the land!
Fill each empty hand and basket,
’Tis thy little ones who ask it.
So we sing—so we sing—
Thou wilt bring us everything!”

During the chorus, sundry glances, half in eagerness, half in dread, had been cast toward the polished folding doors. Now a loud knocking was heard. The circle was broken in an instant. Some of the little ones, with a strange mixture of fear and delight, pressed against their mother’s knee. Grandfather bent forward, with his chin resting upon his hand; grandmother lifted her spectacles; Mynheer van Gleck, seated by the fireplace, slowly drew his meerschaum from his mouth, while Hilda and the other children settled themselves beside him in an expectant group. The knocking was heard again.

“Come in,” said madame softly.The door slowly opened, and Saint Nicholas, in full array, stood before them. You could have heard a pin drop! Soon he spoke. What a mysterious majesty in his voice! what kindliness in his tones! “Karel van Gleck, I am pleased to greet thee, and thy honoured vrouw Kathrine, and thy son and his good vrouw Annie!

“ Children, I greet ye all! Hendrick, Hilda, Broom, Kary, Huygens, and Lucretia! And thy cousins, Wolfert, Diedrich, Mayken, Voost, and Katrina! Good children ye have been, in the main, since I last accosted ye. Diedrich was rude at the Haarlem fair last fall, but he has tried to atone for it since. Mayken has failed of late in her lessons, and too many sweets and trifles have gone to her lips and too few stivers to her charity box. Diedrich, I trust, will be a more polite, manly boy for the future, and Mayken will endeavor to shine as a student. Let her remember, too, that economy and thrift are needed in the foundation of a worthy and generous life. Little Katy has been cruel to the cat more than once. Saint Nicholas can hear the cat cry when its tail is pulled. I will forgive her if she will remember from this hour that the smallest dumb creatures have feeling and must not be abused.” As Katy burst into a frightened cry, the saint graciously remained silent until she was soothed. “Master Broom,” he resumed, “I warn thee that boys who are in the habit of putting snuff upon the foot stove of the schoolmistress may one day be discovered and receive a flogging—But thou art such an excellent scholar, I shall make thee no further reproof.

“Thou, Hendrick, didst distinguish thyself in the archery match last spring, and hit the Doel, though the bird was swung before it to unsteady thine eye. I give thee credit for excelling in manly sport and exercise—though I must not unduly countenance thy boat racing since it leaves thee too little time for thy proper studies.

“Lucretia and Hilda shall have a blessed sleep tonight. The consciousness of kindness to the poor, devotion in their souls, and cheerful, hearty obedience to household rule will render them happy.

“With one and all I avow myself well content. Goodness, industry, benevolence, and thrift have prevailed in your midst. Therefore, my blessing upon you—and may the New Year find all treading the paths of obedience, wisdom, and love. Tomorrow you shall find more substantial proofs that I have been in your midst. Farewell!” With these words came a great shower of sugarplums, upon a linen sheet spread out in front of the doors. A general scramble followed.The children fairly tumbled over each other in their eagerness to fill their baskets. Madame cautiously held the baby down in their midst, till the chubby little fists were filled. Then the bravest of the youngsters sprang up and burst open the closed doors—in vain they peered into the mysterious apartment—Saint Nicholas was nowhere to be seen.

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