Saint Nicholas arrived at our farmhouse on December 6th in full regalia, including the mitre, staff and the “ book of knowledge.” His sidekick, the Devil, always in a bad temper, accompanied him. Saint Nicholas would call each of us, individually to his side and read to us from the book of our yearly deeds, good and bad.
We would hardly dare to sneak a peek at the Devil, who was dressed all in black,a long shiny tail, and orange work gloves on his hands and feet. Before the incongruous companions departed, we would stand together and sing an Austrian Christmas carol to Saint Nicholas “Lass’t uns froh und Munter sein....” meaning “let us be joyful and full of mirth...”, hardly the sentiment we felt if the devil had given us the switch for bad deeds mentioned.
During the weeks leading up to Christmas my sister, brothers and I attempted to be the “Christkindl “ for each other. We would draw names each Sunday, and for the rest of that week we were to make a special effort to be helpful, to have a kind word, or place a small gift on the bed, for the person whose name we drew. Each time any of us performed a kind deed my mother would put a piece of straw in a small manger that was kept in the living room. Thus, as the deeds grew so would the mound of straw as well as the comfort of the cradle for the Christ child.
As Christmas approached we would tape our wish lists to a special window in the sewing room to which an angel would come in the middle of the night and carry the list off to the heavens. You can be sure that we were all particularly well behaved near that room.
It is the custom in Austria to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. With the arrival of the big night came the traditional blessing of the house. As dusk arrived we all gathered in the kitchen to light candles and incense. From there we went throughout the house, stopping at the doorway of each room to sing a song and pray for the person who occupied that room. Meanwhile, living room, which had been closed off to the children for the past week, was in the final process of being transformed into a fantasy world; candles on the tree were being lit and the last of the presents were placed under the tree.
Music has permeated all aspects of my growing up. I have strong memories of my father taking the guitar off the wall and singing to us at bedtime. We sang at church, school music programs, special community events and weddings.
None of these occasions, however, compared to those wonderful times when our farmhouse, filled with friends and family, overflowed with the joy of Christmas Song.