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Mrs. Sharp's Traditions

Spreading Out the Joys of Christmas

December 03, 1987|SARAH BAN BREATHNACH

"I can't wait" is an expression parents will hear often in the next few weeks, for indeed, young children cannot wait to enjoy the delights of Christmastide.

Yet waiting patiently is a lesson we must all learn or life is most disagreeable. However, there is no reason for developing patience to be unpleasant. Which is why Mrs. Sharp learned a century ago to spread out the joys of Christmas over 32 days, from the first of December until January's Epiphany celebration.

"Thirty-two days? Sorry, Mrs. Sharp, but we can barely make it through one! Tradition or not, there's no way you're going to get us to celebrate Christmas for 32 days."

But that, my dears, is precisely your difficulty. Can you not see it is clear folly to crowd Christmas into 12 very full hours of one day and expect everyone to enjoy themselves? Christmastide is, after all, not just a day, but a season. Let us make the most of it.

There is much to be said for the practical Victorian custom of "keeping Christmas." Our celebration of yuletide, which embraced both reverently religious and festively secular aspects, was spread out over an extended period.

First of all, by spreading out the gifts, parties and special treats, parents quiet down the choruses of "I can't wait," as our young ones discover that they can indeed learn to wait. As long as they don't have to wait very long.

Also by extending the pleasures of the Christmas season, the disappointing letdown that often comes Christmas morning is diminished. Christmas is the hardest day of the year for children to live through. Greed, coupled with the stress and strain of "being good" all month, can bring about such tense, nervous excitement in our young ones that they cannot fail to be miserable.

Is there a parent among us who has not stood transfixed in utter bewilderment on Christmas morning as their children burst into tears when all the riches of the world lay at their feet? Given what the day is supposed to represent--peace, love and family joy--Christmas often seems not to be as enjoyable as it should be.

What Mrs. Sharp would like her younger readers to remember is that underlying every warm, nostalgic Victorian tradition updated for 1980s family life, there is a firm foundation of common sense. Victorian mothers were, if anything, extremely practical.

Let us look at the custom of a visit from St. Nicholas on his day, Dec. 6. This was the real beginning of the Christmas season for many Victorian families, as it still is for many families in the Netherlands, Germany and Britain. This old-fashioned tradition can start setting the mood for a wonderful holiday season for your family.

For parents who feel frustrated by the fact that Santa Claus' visit inevitably overshadows their religious observance of the birth of Christ, a visit from St. Nicholas can help tremendously. It is St. Nicholas who journeys from heaven to Earth each year on his birthday to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ child. He comes early enough in the month to give us time to do so.

For modern children who no longer believe in Santa Claus (and to Mrs. Sharp's dismay it seems they get younger with each passing Christmas), a celebration of St. Nicholas Day can satisfy a deep desire children of all ages have to believe in a great, benevolent and generous gift-giver who rewards the good.

Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, was said to have lived about AD 325. He was well-beloved for his compassion and generosity. When people were hungry, baskets of food would miraculously appear at their door. When winter came, so would mysterious parcels of warm clothing. How did he know?

The night before St. Nicholas Day the children place their empty shoes beside the fireplace or door. When they awaken the next morning, they discover a delicious German honey cake with his picture on the front, a small mesh bag of gold-foil-covered chocolate coins and one longed-for gift from each child's wish list. (Mrs. Sharp orders her St. Nicholas honey cake supplies from Minneapolis-based Maid of Scandinavia, a mail-order source of unusual and ethnic food preparation ingredients. Information: (800) 328-6722.)

Celebrating St. Nicholas Day takes the holiday pressure off children and adults. With just a taste of Christmas joys to come, we can begin to look outside ourselves to the holiday needs of each other. We can never outgrow the magic of a visit from St. Nicholas. Invite him into your homes this year and see for yourself.

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