One of my friends with whom I shared an apartment senior year was a local boy--his father was a professor in the English department and his mother was a locally-famous caterer who, along with her catering partner, held a beloved "Friday Afternoon Luncheon Cafe" at the local Parish House every week. Their family had a tradition, presumably coming from their Czech ancestors, of celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas Eve, and senior year I was invited to the celebration. There were a number of our college friends there as well as adult friends of the family. It was a really nice gathering, and I felt very adult just being there, especially when the Scotch was served. I hated Scotch, but I loved being served Scotch.
At the same time, I suppose it was one of my last chances to be a kid.
The bulk of the meal traditionally is pork chops and Czech dumplings, which--like all the food served at their house, regardless of who is cooking--is absolutely fantastic. For dessert, my friend's mother brings out a cake in the shape of St. Nicholas, at which point, as my friend describes it,
Pa then starts berating her for not making enough dessert for all the guests (some years this has led to female guests attempting to kick my father under the table), then she invites someone to check a silver platter we have. No dessert, but inside the platter is a note, which tells the story of St. Nick, and says maybe he stopped by the house to leave sweets and presents. Ma then suggests that if he did the sweets and presents will be on the front porch. The kids run to check the front porch, no sweets, of course. So then the back porch and voila a plate with chocolate apples and marzipan and oranges and nuts, and presents (almost always books).When I was there, my friend got to do the berating act, which is largely for the benefit of the new guest. There always seems to be at least one new guest each year, and that year it was me, which also meant I got to check the platter.
We did, of course, all run dutifully run to the porch, even though as wise old college seniors, we could smell a set-up a mile away. We could also smell the rewards of playing along, I suppose! I received the book Snow Falling on Cedars, and the marzipan was amazing.
There were just so many wonderful things about that evening, far beyond the gift and the food. It was the good company--not only other students who I liked very well, but adults as well, which is a nice social change at that age. Even more that that, though, there are just so many things to like about the ritual celebration. First, there's the simple fact that most people don't celebrate this holiday; whereas Christmas ends up being almost strictly a family event for most people, this can more easily include friends. I also love the inclusive nature of the celebration, the way that it draws in new people each year, a new group, continually including "fresh blood." The danger in a ritual, of course, is that it can become the same old same old very easily, but the ritual berating act really only works if there's someone new who isn't "in" on the joke. And that yearly re-mixing, I'm sure, brings a new energy each year as well.
I always thought that when I was older, I should like to carry on this tradition myself--my own memory of my singular celebration of the event made such an impression on me that it makes me want to perpetuate it. Isn't that where ritual celebrations really (or really should!) come from? From doing something over and over again because doing so seems meaningful and worthwhile to you? Well, we've got three children now, and I even bought a cake mold shaped like Santa Claus, but so far I haven't made the inadequate cake and we haven't invited people over for the celebration. My wife has at least driven the celebration by having the girls write letters to Santa and having them wake up to a little gift in the morning, so this whole Saint Nicholas celebration is a thing, just not the thing that I'd like it to be.
Maybe next year.