On 5 December in 1984, late at night, I was polishing my snow boots, placing them on the widow sill, considering whether I should draw the curtain or not, in case St Nicholas should peep into our living room. The air outside was crisp though it was not snowing yet. “Any time soon”, I hoped.
My sister’s boots were tiny compared to mine, she was 7 years my junior and that made me smirk because I knew that Mikuláš (as we called him in Slovak) could potentially fit more. More clementines, monkey nuts, chocolate coins or even an odd banana (if the good old trade infrastructure allowed for such exotic pleasures!)
There were other perks of the Mikuláš season too. My parents’ employers organised annual discos for children. But we were not allowed to dance until Mikuláš, accompanied by the Angel and Devil, gave out identical presents of sweets and fruit to all the children waiting in a long queue. Don’t ask me why the Devil was needed, I have never really thought about it. I remember angels always looking stunning, with their fur trimmed white dresses getting shorter and shorter every year. Parents loved 6 December too, it was a great excuse to get tipsy after work (or even during) and launch thus slowly but surely the Christmas season.
The truth is, this gift-giving tradition rooted in early Christianity and inspired by a philanthropist born in South Turkey, was a strange mixture of religious and secular symbolism even during the ‘atheistic’ socialism. The Mikuláš I remember from the childhood was a serious guy with a tall hat reminiscent of Christian Orthodox Priest. Sometimes he was drawn on a cart or troika sledge through the snow. Nowadays, these guys look more like under-nourished Santas.
If anyone asks my children about their Slovak heritage, they often bring up St Nicholas as the special day whey they get their boots filled with little presents – long before Santa has even considered to dust off his boots and started planning his round around West Midlands. Let’s be honest, it does sound a bit more appealing to the British audience than a traditional Christmas soup of pork and sauerkraut or endless permutations of savoury dumplings. Many Central or Eastern European communities living in UK share similar nostalgia and continue to organise popular St Nicholas events for parents and children. Only the beautiful tall hats are somehow missing and the Angels could do with a bit more white fur…