I wrote the first draft of this story last year on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, then revised it a few days later to share at the December meeting for a women’s writing group I belonged to then. I planned to share it on this blog last night, but did not have the energy to proofread it, and write the update I wanted to include, so I slept last night and am sharing this today.
On December 5th, 1966 I sat on my bed, like I did every night when I was 3, and waited for my mom to read me a story. That night, she carried a book into my room, rather than picking one from the shelf or asking if I had picked one myself. It was The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren.
I was excited before she lifted the cover. Tomte – Swedish gnomes – were notorious mischief makers in our family. They stole socks from the laundry, dropped mittens onto the back stairs, and were unquestionably blamed for eating the ripe cherry tomatoes in my grandma’s garden. That there was a book about them meant they MUST be special.
The Tomten of the story lives on a small, lonely farm nestled deep in a forest of Northern Sweden. We enter his world, on a clear winter night. “The snow lies white all around, the frost is cruel,” we are told, the people have gone into their warm, cozy houses. The farm is quiet. “Everyone is sleeping. All but one…”
By the soft glow of moonlight, The Tomten moves from building to building, making tracks in the snow. He cares for the animals as he makes his rounds, and talks to them in tomten language, “a silent, little language” they can understand. As he tends to their needs on this bitter night, he reminds them that spring will come, of the blessings in what they have, about friendship, faith and love.
I was mesmerized by the tale and its charming illustrations. When it was time to leave the Tomten’s farm, I was bursting with enchantment, and my mom knew it.
So it was at that very moment that she told me about St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. On St. Nicholas Day, she told me, St. Nicholas visits towns and villages, where they have parties and feasts in his honor. On the night before, she reported, children in Sweden and “other countries” left their shoes outside their door. If they had been good, they would wake to find St. Nicholas had filled their shoes with treats. Because we were Swedish, mom continued, St. Nicholas visited our house, too. Today is December 5th, St. Nicholas Day is tomorrow, she explained, so I would probably want to pick of a pair of shoes to set outside my bedroom door. I was skeptical, I remember, because I knew St. Nicholas was Santa, and Santa came on Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve was a looooong way away since we had opened Door 19 on the Advent calendar that morning. I expressed my doubts. “OK,” mom said, “but don’t expect your brothers to share their treats with you tomorrow.”
After I climbed out of bed, a slight detour toward the door allowed me a glimpse my MUCH older and wiser brothers’ Sunday shoes in the hall. If they, of 9 and 12, set their shoes neatly against the baseboard of the wall between their bedrooms, I should put a pair of my shoes outside my door, too. I slid the heavy closet door back on its track so it thunked against the frame and scared the trolls living in the closet into the walls, just as my brothers told me to do.
I was leaning in, surveying the dark void to make sure it was troll-free when my brain sounded the alarm. Would my Sunday shoes be good enough? I wondered. I had called my cousin Ginny a brat that day and tattled on my brother. I needed to put out my VERY BEST shoes, I realized as I inspected the mound of footwear on the floor.
Then I saw them, in the corner where they landed after bouncing off the laundry basket during night time clean up – my klompens – the wooden shoes my mom bought me at the Holland (Michigan) Tulip Festival, the spring before. If any shoes could get me treats despite my errant three-year-old ways, it would be my klompens.
The next morning, when I emerged from my room, one my shoes and each of my brothers’ were filled with a glistening ruby-red apple and a candy cane, and the other contained a small wrapped gift. My gift was a Millie Middle Little Kiddle doll. It was magic, I proclaimed as I ran from room to room. Magic that can wait for daylight, my older brother said, as I tried to roust him from his bed.
That morning was the first of many enchanting December 6ths. As I grew, the trinkets grew with me, and when I stopped putting my shoes outside my door, St. Nicholas came anyway. He sneaked books into my Moon Boots, Lip Smackers into ski boots left in the breezeway, and earrings into a stray Candie’s clog on its side on my bedroom floor. It was a tradition, for our family. Every year there was something, and it always felt like magic, for a moment, at least.
On the night of December 5th, 1994, my daughter sat on her bed, as she did every night when she was almost 3, and despite her objections to my reading MorMor’s Story, I read her The Tomten. It had been a gift from my mom, her Mormor, when we gathered for Thanksgiving that year. After I finished, and she conceded that it was OK this time, I told her the story of St, Nicholas Day, and how I had chosen to put my klompens outside my door, when I was her age. I told her she could use my klompens, too, if she wanted.
But my daughter did not inherit my skepticism or doubt concerning whether she was “good” enough to get treats. She jumped from the bed, pulled her pink Converse high tops from the closet, and placed them outside her bedroom door. That year and the next, we were both enchanted on the morning of December 6th, Zoe by the treats that magically appeared in her favorite shoes de jour, and I by the comforting exuberance of continuing traditions steeped in love.
Something happened after that, though, and St. Nicholas Day got lost in the melee of parenting, work, holiday shopping and the ongoing stress of a bad marriage. Each year, around Halloween, I would want to remember, but December 6th would come and go before I would think of it again. My son Andy, who is only three years younger than his sister has never known the simple joy of finding treats and trinkets in his shoes. The tradition died.
On December 6, 2011, I sat in bed as I do many mornings, and wrote in my journal. When I finished waxing on my hopes for the day I went downstairs to get new tax class information I wanted to organize. When I picked up the papers and workbook, I realized the binder I planned to use was too small, so I went out to the garage where I keep the overflow stock. Mission accomplished, stuff on a makeshift table fashioned from floorboards laid across strategically spaced plastic bins, grabbed my attention. It was a garage sale table, one of several currently filling my garage as I try to sell off and get rid of what we don’t want or can’t take with us when we lose our house and move, soon. This one is different from the other tables of “junk” though, it holds trinkets of memories – a little girl’s jewelry, beanbag toys , resin figurines from birthdays past. Memories better held in hearts than in our hands, I chanted to myself, as I stuck colored dots declaring 25¢ and 50¢ and laid them out for sale.
On top of the wood crate “shelf” in the center of the table, were my klompens. It wasn’t the first time they caught my eye since they were relegated to liquidation in August. I’ve wanted to pick them up a hundred times since I put them there, but wouldn’t or couldn’t touch them out of fear that I would not put them back down, and a frenzied reclamation of knick-knacks would ensue. “Let them go,” I told myself as I walked into the house with the binder tucked under my arm. Then I remembered it was St. Nicholas Day, and the memories you’ve been reading started swirling in my brain. I went back out to the garage, picked them up, peeled the red dot with a Sharpie scribbled $1 off the toe, and carried my klompens back into the house. Once inside, I set them on the floor next to the chair I sat and rocked my children in, on long, dark nights, while everyone else was asleep. Then I sat down, and pulled The Tomten from the wooden rack next to the rocker.
“Winters come and winters go,
Summers come and summers go,
Soon you will be in your clover field.”
The Tomten said, in tomten language, a silent little language I could understand.
It’s been 45 years since I woke up that first December 6th. Life has proved more challenging and amazing than I ever imagined as a child, or while raising mine. My klompens are outside my bedroom door, now, empty of treats but overflowing with memories and dreams. I don’t know whether I will keep them or not, now that I know I can hold onto memories without keeping stuff. But for now, they will stay, in honor of St Nicholas, my loving mom, the Tomten, and me.
2012 Update: When I wrote this story last year, my son Andy and I were living in “our” house, the house he and his sister were raised in for the previous eight years. The house was on the market, and in foreclosure then, because the divorce I needed to refinance the mortgage the year before was not final until after I had left my job on the promise of another that fell through, and I had been unable to find a job that provided the income I needed to qualify for a new mortgage or modification. We did not know what the future held…I had work starting in January, which would turn into two jobs, by the end of December, but whether they would provide enough income in time to apply for a mortgage modification was something only the future could know. As it turned out, the income was a week late. Exactly one week before I had the pay stubs I needed to apply for the mortgage, an offer was made on our house. Our garage was set up as a garage sale until spring, when the sale of the house closed, and everything was either sold, donated or put into storage. A lot has changed since then. After Andy and I moved out of our house, we moved to St. Louis for a job after school let out in June, and back home to Boise in late August, in time for him to start at a new school this year. A school he loves. In October, I got the job I have now. The job I love.
Almost everything has changed in the past year, and in the process, Andy and I lost much, and gained more. But some things have not changed… St. Nicholas Day eluded me again, this year, and I still have my klompens.