Thursday, December 3, 2009
St. Nicholas: My Favorite Saint
December 6 is the feast of St. Nicholas – my favorite saint. In Europe, Christmas is still considered a religious holiday, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is the day for fun and presents (although that is changing somewhat).
The generous Greek bishop comes to the aid of dowerless damsels, children, sailors, fishermen, the wrongly imprisoned and darn near anybody else who needs his help. No wonder everybody wants to throw him a party!
St. Nicholas is recognized and celebrated all over Europe. He is particularly popular in the Dalmatian region of Croatia where he is known as Sveti Nikola. You can’t walk around the block there without running into a church named after him.
Biloxi’s Dalmatian immigrants brought St. Nicholas with them to help look after their fishing boats. He performed the job admirably from his perch outside the Slavic Benevolent Association's lodge on Point Cadet until Hurricane Katrina knocked him over.
Growing up we celebrated St. Nicholas' Day and also St. Lucy’s feast day on December 13th. My mother explained that St. Nick was Santa Claus’s older, skinnier cousin. Actually, they are one and the same, but I still think of St. Nick as the "skinny cousin." Don't we all have one?
In Europe, St.Nicholas leaves children toys, candy and fruit in their shoes, stockings, or a special “St. Nicholas sack.” In our house, St. Nicholas always left our trinkets knotted on a long string.
Maybe Nona used strings as a hygienic alternative to putting food in shoes that her six kids wore (kind of gross when you think about it). She sure couldn’t afford to buy them all a “ceremonial” pair of shoes. Since several other Biloxi families also used strings, I’m inclined to think it might have been a local custom peculiar to the region they came from.
Compared to the bounty Santa Claus left at our house, his skinny cousin’s offerings were comparatively lean – but altogether magical.
Our average Nicholas string included several pieces of imported candy (my favorites were the foil-wrapped cordial-filled chocolates shaped like wine bottles), a sack of chocolate gold-foil wrapped coins (in honor of the gold coins St. Nick left for the dowerless maidens), a folk-y Christmas ornament, a flavored popcorn ball and always, ALWAYS a shiny red apple at the bottom of the string.
Apples have a symbolic association with St. Nicholas. Apple strudel is a common St. Nicholas Day treat. In old Croatia, this was a traditional day for engagements with the young man presenting a basket of apples to his intended as he popped the question. It all goes back to those three dowerless virgins. The gold St. Nick left for them is often symbolized by three gold balls, which in some paintings and statues, are depicted as apples.
As Biloxi’s Croatian families assimilated into American culture, a lot of them forsook celebrating St. Nicholas Day and rolled all their celebration over to Christmas. Sadly a number of my generation and the next never knew the joy of awakening to a Nicholas string on December 6. What a pity.
If you’d like to find out more about St. Nicholas and start a tradition of your own, I suggest you visit this site. It is an incredibly comprehensive source of St. Nicholas info. You can even find out what he really might have looked like.
And how seriously cool is it that there is an entire non-profit organization (in Michigan of all places) dedicated to promoting awareness of my favorite saint?
Photo: I ordered this ornament from the St. Nicholas Center for my Christmas tree and one just like it for my niece's Nicholas string. Their site has all kinds of great ornaments, stamps, cookie cutters, stickers, that make perfect items for Nicholas strings, stocking/shoe/sack stuffers. The site also posts some traditional recipes from the countries that celebrate this feast day.
The two recipes below are from my family's celebration.
Enjoy and have a Happy St. Nicholas Day!
JELLO POPCORN BALLS – A NICHOLAS STRING STAPLE
The popcorn balls that graced our Nicholas strings mostly came from the Karmel Korn shop at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi, but occasionally we got these made-from-scratch popcorn balls. The Jello (lime or cherry) not only makes the balls flavorful, but festive, too, although the cherry ones usually turn out more dark pink than red.
1 cup light corn syrup
¾ cup sugar
1, 3 oz. package of Jello (cherry or lime are preferred)
2 ½ quarts of popcorn, popped
Boil corn syrup, sugar together. Add the Jello. Stir until dissolved. Remove from heat . Cool slightly. Add popcorn. Grease hands. Shape mixture into balls, working quickly. Let dry. Makes about a dozen depending on how large you make them.
Nona and Aunt Dolores were famous for their apple strudel. They always made it this time of year. Now that they're both gone, my cousin Steve makes it now.
2 eggs, well beaten
½ stick melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup granulated sugar
3-4 cups of flour (1/2 cup self-rising to 2/3 cup of all-purpose).
For the dough: Mix first 4 ingredients together in a large bowl with electric mixer. Add flour gradually. Dough will get very stiff (add more if needed). After mixing, knead dough on a surface lightly dusted with all purpose flour. When the dough feels smooth, poke your finger in it. If the indentation fills back up quickly, it is time to roll the dough out.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured clean dishcloth. Roll dough out in a circular shape for one big roll. May also separate and roll into two circles (on separate cloths) to make two smaller rolls. Keep the dough thin but not too thin. You don’t want the apples to pierce through the crust and let all your good juices escape.
7-8 large red apples, thinly sliced
½ stick of butter, cut into pats
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup cinnamon
Apple Filling: Spread the apple slices on the dough (which is still on the cloth). Dot with butter. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. You can use more or less sugar/cinnamon depending on your taste and the sweetness of the apples.
Lift cloth and roll like a jelly roll. Place seam side down on an ungreased cookie sheet with an edge. Tuck under both ends of the strudel to keep juices in.
Dot top with more butter. Sprinkle on more sugar and cinnamon. Bake in a 350 degree oven 35-45 minutes or until slightly browned. Baste 2-3 times during baking. Cool. Slice thin to serve. Makes 1 large roll or 2 small ones.