Thursday, December 6, 2007

Nicholas Day for the Nicolas Atheist

Happy Nicholas Day everybody.

Here in the Nicolas household today in the traditional start of the Christmas season which runs until Twelfth Night on 6 January.

I'm assuming that this proclamation comes as something of a surprise to some readers due to my atheism, but I wasn't born an atheist I became one, so Christmas was a part of my childhood and has remained part of my life since. Atheism on my part is the result of combining intelligence, common sense, and scholarly pursuits--Christmastime traditions, on the other hand, come from family traditions. I believe that intellect and reasonable thinking are an important aspect of a good life, and I also believe that tradition is important to a good family life. I firmly believe that the loss of traditions and the absence of rites of passage are two major contributors to a lot of society's ills.

Anyway, I meant to talk about the Nicolas' celebration of Nicholas Day, and not preach, so let's move on.

The traditions surrounding Christmastime here in the Nicolas household go as follows:

On Nicholas Day (today) the tree (always a fir tree) is purchased and brought into the house. That evening it is decorated along with the rest of the house. But, any lights on the tree remain unlit until Christmas Eve. A statue of St. Nicholas (or Grandfather Frost for my Great-Grandmother--Russian immigrant) and another of Krampus are placed in front of the tree to remind the children that they should be good.

The Nicholas/Grandfather Frost and Krampus thing, as I understand it, is an amalgamation of Russian and German traditions that my paternal great-grandparents brought from their prospective ancestries. My great-grandfather was Irish/German, and my great-grandmother Russian. Only in America could such combinations happen.

Without going into all the history of these traditions (which I have done for myself) I'll just say that when I was a child, Grandfather Frost/Nicholas represented getting presents on Christmas if I was good while Krampus represented getting nothing if I was bad. My grandmother told me that for her Krampus represented a great deal of fear because the way she had understood it Krampus would come down the chimney on Christmas Eve and drag her off if she had been bad--Nicholas would take Krampus' place if she had been good and bring her fruit and a toy. Thankfully, this tradition had been toned down a bit for me, because I was already having nightmares about Dad's "Satan" coming to get me for celebrating Christmas with my grandmother.

You see, somewhere along the way my father had become a fire and brimstone Pentecostal who thought celebrating Christmas, Easter, Halloween, and any other fun holiday (including birthdays) was evil because of their connections to the Catholic Church and pagan tradition. However, my grandmother is an extremely strong woman and forced my father to let my brothers, sisters, and me stay with her through Christmas.

Anyway, I digress again.

So after the tree has been decorated and Frost/Nicholas and his buddy Krampus have been placed, the children and I light a candle for their mother. I started this the year my wife died because it was she who had made Christmas purely a time of fun for me. Since she was Catholic, Christmas was a big deal for her, and through her I began to enjoy Christmas even though by the time I had met her I had lost every bit of my belief in Christ. While she was alive, I accompanied her to mass throughout the Christmas season despite the fact that I could not actually participate in the various rituals.

After Nicholas Day it becomes pretty much a time for the normal hum drums of life with the occasional Christmas party thrown in until Christmas Eve when the tree is lit, Krampus is put aside, and a large family dinner is devoured. After the kids are in bed the presents are hauled out of hiding, assembled if need be, and placed under and around the tree. Midnight mass was on the agenda for several years, but I haven't been in a church since the day I buried my wife, except for touristy visits to St. Patrick's in New York.

Christmas morning is set aside for my children and me to open gifts and such, then the rest of the day is visiting/phone call time for family and friends.

On New Year's Eve I am in the woods somewhere camping. Sometimes the kids go with me, sometimes they don't. This night is more of a personal tradition that sprang up the year my wife died. I was extremely depressed after Christmas, so as is my way when life gets to me, I packed up my camping gear and went to the woods a few days after Christmas. That year I woke up at about two in the morning New Year's Day and it was snowing outside the tent. That was an extremely emotional moment for me, so I have been camping through New Year's every year since. This year ice climbing on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire is tentatively on the agenda, so the children probably won't go--it's way too cold for them there this time of year. Rock climbing in Red River Gorge Kentucky is the back-up plan, and the one the children are pushing.

The final event on my family Christmas calender is the taking down of the tree and all Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night (6 January) or as my wife called it "Epiphany." This is done (again according to my father's family) to avoid the bad luck that leaving these decorations up would bring to the household.

So there it is. Today, for me and mine, is the start of a truly mixed set of traditions brought from Russia, Germany, Ireland and who knows where else to the small house in the woods of Kentucky, USA where my grandmother lives then exported with a few additions to the small house in Indiana where I live.

Hopefully, these things will be carried at least in part to wherever my children end up living in their adulthood.

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