December 6th has a tradition in Germany called St Nicholas Day. It is some sort of preliminary Christmas; St Nicholas always seemed like a vice-Santa to me – although, by origins, it seems to be the same guy - but the main idea is that if you’re good and you clean your boots on the eve of St Nicholas Day, you will wake the next morning to find it full of treats: oranges, gingerbread, chocolate. Both boots, in fact, if you’ve been very good or your parents just happened to be rich and generous.
My English friends always reacted to this with noses wrinkled in disgust. Ew – eating chocolate from a smelly shoe? But they should shut up, really. Two words: Christmas Pudding. Like Marmite, what the hell is this about? Christmas pudding, by tradition, is a blackened, steamed lump of the shit you scrape from the corners and bottom of your pantry at the end of the year, and the only reason it’s semi-edible is because you drench it in booze, set it on fire and then drown it in brandy custard – otherwise it would taste about as delicious as the shoe my more civilised countrymen are judged for eating out of on the day of December 6th.
Ah, but there was nothing more exciting than polishing your boots the night before, and then go to bed, and wait for anticipation to wake you in the wee hours. We were not allowed to get up too early, but sometimes I could not bear it anymore: I would tiptoe out of my room in the middle of the night, and grope in the dark for the shoe rack by the front door until I found my boots, and the bulky feel of the goodies inside. It was almost the same stuff every year, and I remember vividly the pack of gingerbread, the carton in the shape of a gingerbread house that promised to be an awesome toy for when the cookies were gone. I’d sneak back to bed and then return to pick it up around 6am, and sit in my bed munching gingerbread, feeling naughty for stuffing myself before breakfast, and relishing the Christmas tingle warm inside me.
One particular St Nicholas Day, I went over to my friend David’s place, who lived just one apartment block away from me, and we’d have an early morning pre-school picnic in his room, with oranges, gingerbread, cola and chocolates.
But there was one St Nicholas Day that will always stand out to me. It was that time when I didn’t get anything.
I need to point out at this stage that my older brother and I never got on. He just knew how to push my button. And he did at every opportunity. He got away with it because our parents never really cared much who started it, just any sort of fight was crushed and broken up, and anyone involved got punished. I never understood how an adult can tell a kid to “just ignore” the bully – it requires a lot of emotional and cognitive control, and kids just don’t have that yet. While I certainly wasn’t an angel in my childhood, I can openly say that I had no interest in fighting with my brother – he was older and stronger, and I would always lose. I never looked for a fight with him – but he did, for his entertainment. (Ah, nothing like the blame game, eh?)
I don’t know what started it that particular night of December 5th, but my brother and I got into a terrible fight. It ended with our parents prying us apart, giving both of us a good spanking and condemning us to our rooms. They had often threatened us that Christmas would be cancelled if we misbehaved, but never made it true – either because we managed to pull ourselves together, or because they just found it too cruel to see through. That’s why I never expected anything when I sneaked out of my room in the cover of darkness that night, feeling for my boots, as I always did.
When I first felt it, I thought I had the wrong boots. But a second feel confirmed it: they were my boots, I could feel the embossed design on them. They were limp and hollow when I squeezed them. They were empty. My stomach sank. It couldn’t be right. Maybe they had put things in a different shoe. I felt my way along from shoe to shoe, identifying my parents’, my brothers’, mine again, straining my eyes in the dark, not daring to turn on the light. Nothing.
My mind refused to believe it. Maybe they got the date wrong. Maybe I got the date wrong.
But let’s be honest: has any kid ever got the date wrong for any sort of lucrative holiday?
And I remembered the threat of last night, and it became clear they had not been kidding.
I sneaked back to bed, pulling the covers over myself, still in disbelief, and then started crying.
The next morning I was determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I pretended I had forgotten about St Nicholas Day, I had not noticed that my boots were empty, tried to hide any sort of emotion of awareness on my face, acted as if everything was normal. I had breakfast, put on my coat, grabbed my school bag and went to school. I managed to hold the tears back all the way to school. Then my friend Dave saw me, waved at me, holding a chocolate santa, and shouted, “Hey, what did you get?”. That set me off. I burst out in tears.
In retrospect, I can’t really understand what upset me so much then. I remember what it felt like – the gutwrenching feeling of disbelief and worthlessness, especially when seeing all the other kids with their presents, and me not having anything – but I can’t put my finger on what exactly it was that really got me. Must be an adult thing to not really care anymore whether you get something for Christmas or not, but for kids it seems to be a fundamental thing. I am still trying to understand why, maybe it’s one of those days where in spite of the whole naughty or nice ritual, there is a sense of unconditional love and giving to it, that shows that inspite of everything you have done, you’re still worthy. Either way, I never got into a fight before any holiday again. Let’s say, that particular method my parents employed worked. But still, I think it’s never going to be one I’m gonna use on my kids. Some things are too sacred to touch, and it doesn’t matter how I feel about this incident or Christmas now, as an adult, but I will always remember what it felt like when I was a kid.