St. Nicholas arrives with his angel and devil
On the afternoon and evening of December 5, Svatý Mikuláš (St. Nicholas Day) always promises a few frenzied hours of pre-Christmas revelry in the Czech Republic. St. Nicholas Day is widely celebrated across Europe, although I’ve yet to hear of another country’s tradition (beyond those of other Slovak nations) that thrives on scaring children into goodness quite like the Czech one. As in other European nations, Czechs, young and old, gather ostensibly to celebrate and pay homage to the distinguished Saint Nicholas, a 3rd century Greek bishop. But it is often his cohorts, čert and anděl, (the devil and the angel) who steal center stage.
In Germany, children put out their shoes at night and in the morning the lucky ones find candies, chocolates and nuts from St. Nicholas. As a reminder to be better, children may find sticks, twigs, coal or even potatoes. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (Dutch name for St. Nicholas) arrives by steamer from Spain in mid-November. He rides a white horse into town to greet the mayor and his arrival is broadcast on national television. During the days leading up to December 5, Sinterklaas visits homes and checks to see if children have been behaving themselves. The children make wish lists for Sinterklaas and in return, can also find candy, chocolate or coins in their shoes.
The tradition is similar in the Czech Republic; however, it seems to me that the Czech St. Nicholas often plays a back-seat to his sidekicks Devil and Angel. St. Nicholas is usually dressed in a full-length white robe with a tall bishop’s hat and a white beard. While he consults his book of deeds to determine whether someone has been naughty or nice, the angel and devil make their own bids for the child. The angel, usually a blond-wigged teenager with shimmery wings and a halo stands calmly by St. Nicholas’ side while her counterpart, a black-faced, pitchfork-wielding, chain-rattling devil waggles his tongue, shakes his horns and does a darn good job of scaring his captive audience, even the adults sometimes. For the child’s part, he is expected to recite a short poem or rhyme to the trio, without breaking down in embarrassed stage fright or fearful tears.
The trio is a regular fixture across the country. Teenagers and young adults who themselves are past their St. Nicholas years, often dress up and hit the town, popping up in town squares, at organized Mikuláš events at schools and village community centers. It is also a common trend, especially in towns and villages, to hire a group to visit a private home. The evening is seasonal costumed-fun and a light-hearted introduction to the Advent season, although some frightened youngsters might beg to disagree. As in other countries, good Czech children are “rewarded” with chocolates, mandarins and praise while the naughty ones get potatoes or a lump of coal. Some of the particularly mischievous children are even thrown into the devil’s sack to be carted off to hell, unless they promise to amend their naughty ways. Definitely a bit more intimidating than the “Elf on a Shelf” Advent countdown that’s popular among many of my friends with young children in America.
It’s a scene to behold for sure, and before I knew the extent of the tradition, I exposed Anna Lee as a toddler to a few large-scale community Mikuláš events. When the devils began their chain-rattling and tongue wagging, even the promise of chocolate couldn’t bring a smile to her face. As a toddler she buried her face in my shirt and tried to disappear when her name was called, later she learned to recite a poem, albeit a bit tearfully.
When Oliver burst out of his preschool classroom this December 5 wearing a solemn expression that he pulls out only when he’s very sorry for doing something he shouldn’t have, I knew his encounter with the Mikuláš trio must have been a tough one. Before Oliver could utter a word, his teacher remarked, “Well, Mikuláš came to Oliver today. The devil did too, right Oli? Show your Mom your coal!”
Looking as if he’d rather disappear than revisit the scene, Oliver just grunted a goodbye and slipped toward me. He thrust the two pieces of coal wrapped in a plastic baggy toward me while he clutched his bag with candy. Oliver later confessed that he’d been one of the few kids in the class who’d gotten coal. He couldn’t understand it, since as he explained it, one of his friends who didn’t ever tell the truth (not ever, Mommy) didn’t get coal. My heart went out to Oliver. Radek, however, remarked, “Well, now we know how he must behave at school.”
When we walked over to Anna’s elementary school, there were swarms of devils, angels and a few Mikulášes leaving the school in costume. I found her cheerful and clutching her own bag of chocolate, her face a mess of black marker marks. “I guess the devil came to your school, too?” I asked her.
“Of course, Mommy,” she replied. “We even went looking for them, so we could have some fun.” She told me that when the Mikuláš trio came to visit her class, they put two of the boys into their bags and started to drag them out of the room. Her teacher told them they could only be saved if someone would sing a song. Anna sheepishly admitted that no one else volunteered to sing, so she did. When I told her that Oliver had gotten coal, her happy expression changed quickly to tears. She stomped her foot and declared that she’d go straight to the preschool and tell the teachers that her brother wasn’t naughty at all. Eventually, Oliver calmed her down by insisting that he wasn’t too worried about his coal.
“You know, I saw one of the devils wearing tennis shoes, Anna” he declared, as if that settled it. He also told us that his teacher complimented him for being brave and talking to the devil on his own, when most of the children went in groups of two or three. He added that some of the smaller children hadn’t even seen the devil at all because they were too frightened.
On the way home from school, Anna and Oliver compared candies and treats and shared some with Samuel who hadn’t had his own Mikuláš encounter. Although we’d gotten an invitation from a neighbor to join some of the families with young children at her house for a Mikuláš celebration, I opted to skip the evening version this year. If the children had been healthy, we might have visited Old Town Square or Namesti Miru which are reowned for their Mikuláš festivities, but since Samuel was under the weather, we headed home to decorate Christmas presents for the children’s gymnastics and ballet teachers.
As soon as we got home, Oliver suggested we put the coal in the fireplace, then he changed his mind and made me throw it away and promise not to tell his Daddy. When Radek arrived, before I could say a word, he started wagging his tongue like a devil and the children ran to tell him everything. He assured Oliver he’d also gotten his share of coal in his own childhood and contented, Oliver spent the rest of the night drawing pictures of reindeers and devilish horns. He wasn’t going to be naughty anymore, he promised. And to his word, he even slept in his bed all night long without coming to us, so perhaps the Mikuláš message worked.