This time around, with little gosling making complete sense of everything around him and being able to fully enjoy the mystery around Saint Nicolas and Christmas, we knew it was time to have proper winter celebrations. And we started preparing it all well in advance. Partly to mitigate the unpredictability and uncertainty around the sanitary situation – I didn’t want to be caught with low stocks and delayed deliveries in a middle of a lockdown. Partly, to introduce gradually all the information, activities and traditions we wanted to create for our family around Advent, Saint Nicholas and Christmas, allowing little gosling time to absorb and get excited. We talked longly about winter holidays, what he could expect, all the things we would do together and, you guessed it, we relied heavily on books :).
Saint Nicholas is important in our home country, but it is huge in Belgium. Our local bookstore had a generous offer of stories on display. I selected four books that, which I thought highlighted n an overall exhaustive manner, the different aspects of the holiday: the legend behind it; the public representations of Saint Nicolas; his aides; the preparations, both by Saint Nicolas and by us, at thome; the celebrations around it; leave presents for the kids. I put aside two of the books for Saint Nicolas’ morning. I wrapped one in our book Advent. The fourth one we started reading mid-November.
As we read, little gosling became more and more curious. With curiosity came fancying the idea of presents – receiving them, unwrapping them, attracted by the kids’ excitement and enjoyment in our stories.. Oh, and Saint Nicolas’ biscuits :P, too.
We introduced Saint Nicolas with “Saint Nicolas, c’est qui celui-la?”, published by a local publisher, Mijade. It tells the story of a kid, famous at school for his naughtiness, who gets introduced to Saint Nicolas by one of his classmates. The classmate assumes Saint Nicolas would not usually visit the kid, since he is known to be a troublemaker. Convinced that he would not get a present from Saint Nicolas, he decides to sneak into a toy shop where the Saint is giving our presents and take a present for himself. He gets caught by Pere Fouettard, the Saint’s helper and made to wait in line for his turn. To his amazement, Saint Nicolas knows everything he’s done and points out there is always a mixed picture. Whilst kids may pull pranks, they all are intrinsically kind. The kid had been helping his dad with the dishes, caring for his little sister, for example. In the end, Saint Nicolas hands him a wooden plane he had so much wished for! I loved this sweet, balanced take on naughtiness and its impact on gift receiving. Pulling pranks is what kids do and it does not wipe out all the goodness and innocence in them!
“C’est quand la Saint Nicolas?” was a huge hit! We continued reading it well after Saint Nicolas had passed, with little gosling very seriously asking about the next Saint Nicolas! I think he was more excited about Saint Nicolas than Christmas :)).. Another Belgian product, we unwrapped it from our book Advent a couple of days before Saint Nicolas. It follows two brothers in the days before the holiday, exploring behaving and putting together their wish list and writing letters to Saint Nicolas. It shows them placing their clean boots by the fireplace (we were inspired to do the same, although we grew up with placing the boots by the windows or the door), putting out a carrot for Saint Nicolas’ donkey (! we didn’t know he had a donkey, but we immediately adapted and made sure it had a nice-looking carrot for the effort), singing the Saint Nicolas’ song the following morning and getting terribly excited by the gifts received. It’s a fun and funny story, and a great family read, particularly for siblings!
So, on the evening of the 5th of December, we put all of our winter shoes by the (fake) fireplace and a carrot, all together. The following morning, I gently reminded little gosling to check the boots. He excitedly leapt towards the living room: “There’s something there! Saint Nicolas came!” His eyes got glued on his dad’s presents (biscuits mostly…) and it took a while to move on and get excited about his own presents (no sweets there….). When he finally did, he insisted on putting on the elf pj and on top of it a winter themed sweater with an excavator (one of his obsessions :P), as well as the Christmas themed socks. It also took him less than five minutes to decorate the felt Christmas tree he had received with colourful felt decorations. We kept it up on the wall until January, and it got decorated again and again.
Despite the pandemic and the inability to properly go and see Saint Nicolas giving out presents to kids in a shopping centre, for example, the school made sure the kids got a visit and a small gift. We even have a photo to prove it! 🙂 And a lovely friend made sure he received some of Santa’s speculoos biscuits, which go so well with hot chocolate, mniam-mniam.
The other two books came with Saint Nicolas himself. “Les souliers de Saint Nicolas” (Belgium, Mijade) is an endearingly funny take on Saint Nicolas’ own preparations. Whilst baking his signature biscuits, Saint Nicolas keeps a small curious mouse away. So, the mouse pulls a prank on the old, forgetful Saint. He hides away his shoes. In all the confusion around finding his shoes and putting on his red costume, the Saint burns his last tray of biscuits and leaves the house in slippers. Luckily, his sharp-minded donkey very creatively helps Saint Nicolas keep up appearances. He even licks the burnt traces off his face, affectionately. At the end of the night, when all the work is done and the Saint returns home with some biscuits for the mouse, he discovers his shoes next to the small thief.
“La légende de Saint Nicolas”, published by Auzou, retells the deeds that made the Saint famous and the patron saint of children. Three brothers get lost in the woods whilst looking for food. They knock full of hope on the door of a butcher to get cover for the night, only to be killed and thrown into a barrel for many years, until Saint Nicholas comes along and rescues them. A tale rooted in the gruesome spirit of folk tales, it caught me completely off guard, but we told the story as it was :).