The circle of the year has come back to near the beginning, and in the dark of winter the festival of lights has begun.
Today, St. Nicholas Day, is the formal beginning of the festival in our household. Today is the day the Julebukk first appears in the house, standing near where the Christmas tree will soon stand, and the cluster of jolly nisser appears on a bookshelf in the library. It is also the day that Julenissen himself hides a small present to surprise, perhaps to delight, each member of the family.
We began building our family celebration of St. Nicholas Day from shreds of tradition, rumor, and our own imaginations something over 25 years ago, shortly after Hilde was born. We feared that the mad commercial feast of spending and desire that Christmas often becomes would be overwhelming and wanted to control its impact on us and on our children. At the same time we wanted a small event in the Christmas season, a time set aside as totally ours, to signify to ourselves, and especially to the children, that someone cares.
Usually around 6 December my father would mention St. Nicholas Day, suggesting that it had been a day of importance in his family, but he never told us how it was celebrated or why it was significant. I grew up, moved away, and married, and over time Lisa and I read descriptions of the day as celebrated in various parts of Europe, particularly among the Germans of the Banat, my father’s people; some areas of Norway, my mother’s ancestors; and in the Netherlands, some of Lisa’s ancestors. From time to time various friends also mentioned their families’ traditions of the day.
And we also noticed that there were no St. Nicholas Day sales, no merchants’ suggestions for St. Nicholas Day gifts, and, in fact, no apparent awareness of the day among the purveyors of material goods. A small holiday, not noticed by the commercial world, seemed perfect. And since neither of us had any specific family traditions for the day we felt free to make our own.
Julebukk joined our household in December 1985, our first Christmas in Austin, and, I think, significantly affected how we mark the day. Julebukk and certain other decorations, eventually including a small china-bisque Julenissen figure that had belonged to my mother, would appear some time during the day, and at the evening meal each person would find a small gift on his or her chair. The gift came, we said, from Julenissen.
Some people, I know, think that such tales are lies that should not be told to children. I, on the other hand, think that they fit well into children’s world of make-believe. In any case, as far as I could tell our children were never deceived about Julenissen, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or any of the other fables they were told by us or by others. But they were perfectly happy to play the game, to pretend to believe that an invisible being could smuggle gifts into the house without anyone’s noticing.
It always amazed me that no one ever noticed Julenissen delivering gifts to the dining chairs while the children sat — talking, laughing, watching television — in the same room. Perhaps he really is invisible. Or perhaps not noticing was part of the game, too.
But Hilde left for college, and later Arend also, and it has become increasingly difficult to maintain any mystery in this little holiday tradition. Now Julenissen must rely on the United States Postal Service to deliver those small gifts, and thus has totally lost control over when each child will become aware of having received something.