I'm so pleased to see how people have been celebrating St. Nicholas, and how traditions have been spreading. I wanted to share with you all some journalling I did a few nights ago on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas (which happens to be the Cathedral's Saints day--St. Nicholas is our patron saint).
December 5th, 2005 Eve of St. Nicholas.
Festal Vespers with litya tonight, at the Cathedral, Bishop Seraphim presiding. This was my first experience of an Orthodox celebration of the feast of St. Nicholas. Growing up in the Netherlands I knew all the legends surrounding "Sinterklaas", 80% of them devoid of the spiritual truth about the man who really lived.
I have much nostalgia around this festive time of year--the annual parade through Amsterdam of St Nicholas in his Bishop's getup riding on a white horse with all his zwarte pieten in tow scattering candy to hundreds of kids with their families lined up along the streets...waking up in the morning every morning for a whole week leading up to December 5th and running to our shoes to see what was in it, and yes, finding carrots half chomped through by the schimmel (white horse)....Doing surprises (sur-PREE-sus) with our class or our family: gifts wrapped and disguised within elaborate cardboard and construction paper sculptures of animals, vehicles, robots, people, and other imitable objects, given anonymously by the family member or friend who drew your name out of a hat, addressed to you with an awkwardly rhyming poem from sint en piet which mostly makes fun of your foibles and alludes to the gift inside...
Ever since I've come to North America (8 years ago) I've missed this early December celebration that used to mark off the beginning of the Christmas season. And although I rejoiced to discover St. Nicholas as a true saint when I became Orthodox, indeed, one of the greatest saints to both the East and the West of Christendom, I was also a little sad. This new discovery makes a lot of the old Sinterklaas songs seem too silly, or even offensive, to sing in light of who he is to the Church. I won't be able to celebrate sinterklaasfeest in quite the same way ever again.
But there was something special tonight. Maybe it was a combination of the presence of our own beloved Bishop, the veneration of our icon of St Nicholas (reportedly wonderworking), the wonderful tropar to him, the service interwoven with hymns reflecting on Mary's conception and birth-giving of Christ in preparation for Christmas, the simple and small gathering around tea, coffee, and cookies afterwards--something about all this left me with a feeling that I somehow associate with my memories of this time of year, growing up in Amsterdam.
One of the hard things about becoming Orthodox has been that (as someone who needed it and desired it) in gaining a liturgical calendar and tools for the spiritual geography of our physical time, I have lost some of the few markers I did have before (which I loved and cherished in their sparsity). Technically I haven't lost them (Easter, Christmas, St Nicholas, Pentecost), but the way they are prepared for, celebrated, and spoken of has changed drastically and there sometimes seem to be none of the external markers (certain kinds of decorations, combinations of colours, songs, atmospheres) which evoke in me the memories of all previous celebrations of a given feast, and connect that Day with all those Days gone before. Last Pascha I really missed my Dad's mix-tape he played every Easter morning during my childhood, with lots of Keith Green on it and excerpts from the soulful '70's Young Messiah.
I have not grieved this loss with many tears, partly because I do not think I have lost that much more than nostalgia, and partly because I know that it is only a matter of time (though it may take years) before my experience of the liturgical year deepens and vests itself gradually with all the new externals that do not yet evoke the memories and connections for me which anchor in my heart the building and deepening of the thruth and the blessing that a feast brings year upon year.
Nevertheless, the memories of childhood, the atmospheres of time that were learned when time was long and deep, cannot be replaced, or lost--nor the later additions to my inner landscape (Anglican Advent) that are so connected to the spiritual awakening I had as a teenager.
The strange thing is that there was something tonight that was familiar, something subtle, something nameless, but something that was present in my memories of St. Nicholas days past. And it suddenly struck me that a very likely reason (since none of the externals are the same) is the presence of the Saint himself.
Perhaps, no matter how much sinterklaasfeest has lost its connection to the image of Christ which the Saint bore, when an atheistic nation (whose few christians don't believe in saints anyway) is still remembering him in some way--remembering his anonymous generosity, loving eachother in honour of him--he comes and honours them with his presence...secretly, anonymously, giving them his blessing as they celebrate.
I discover I have not lost Sinterklaas. I only know him better now.