Today is "St. Nicholas' Day" or Święty Mikołaja. Traditionally, children receive presents from St. Nicholas on this day, and the custom is well-maintained, being driven by retail interests as well as tradition. Every day on the calendar is the name day of some Catholic saint, and pretty much every Polish person is named after a saint (sometimes a middle name rather than a first name). They celebrate their "name days" which are considered more important than birthdays, although often the name day will be close to the birthday on the calendar.
It is not surprising, in view of this custom, that Polish people continue to celebrate St. Nicholas' Day. Giving gifts at Christmas time is actually a little less traditional, but it is pretty widely practiced as well. Adults exchange gifts then, as St. Nicholas' Day is exclusively for children, although most teens I know want to be included in the fun, too.
The traditional Polish St. Nicholas does not look like the English/American version of Santa Claus, whose appearance is based very much on the description in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."
His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
The Polish Święty Mikołaj has a more medieval appearance, and often sports a cloak. He need not be chubby or have a white beard, although the white-trimmed red suit is still his trademark.
We don't really celebrate St. Nicholas' Day at our house, although sometimes Polish friends will give the children candy. However, we had lots of Christmas fun today. Not long ago, I acquired a sewing machine, and with a little trial and error, I have managed to perform the basic operations. (Many thanks to those who offered help and suggestions!) Last year, after Christmas, I purchased Christmas fabric and ribbon when they were deeply discounted.
Today, the girls helped me sew the material into simple draw-string gift bags which I plan to use instead of paper to wrap this year's gifts. And next year's. And the gifts for the year after that. It's not at all uncommon to find me wrapping every single gift for the kids on Christmas Eve after they have gone to bed (and they don't go to bed so early any more). Now I can pop everything into bags, pull the ribbons, and voila! Gifts wrapped. No paper, no tape, no fumbling with ribbons and bows. No mega-ultra-sized trash bag full of paper or snippets all over the carpet on Christmas morning.
It's a great idea, and I'm happy to implement it, but if I have to tell the whole, unvarnished truth, my kids are less than thrilled. E. and K. helped me make them because they wanted to use the new sewing machine (and they did a nice job), but they think I am destroying an important Christmas tradition by trying to avoid paper wrapping. They tell me that the fun and the sound of tearing paper is inimical to the joy of Christmas morning, and I am only slightly less objectionable than Ebenezer himself with this attempt to alter what is clearly a sacred, time-honored tradition.
What do you think? Are reusable cloth bags a viable alternative to paper? Or should I be looking out for mysterious, ghostly visitors on Christmas Eve who will reveal to me a shadowy Christmas Future in which my children have been scarred for life by my egregious neglect of crinkly paper?