It’s that time of year again when my wife badgers me into Christmas preparations. Something about the holidays compels her to dream up symbolic objects for me to saw out of plywood and festoon with lights. Last year it was an eight-foot high peace symbol. This year I spent a couple days assembling what my brother refers to as The Duck of Peace. No politics this year, just peace.
A clumsy craftsman, I approach the project grumbling and grumpy. But somewhere amid drilling, sawing, and stapling, the Christmas spirit latches on to me like a panhandler onto a tourist.
We lay it out in the dark, in the carport. The plywood, smudged with pencil marks in the rough shape of a dove, or chicken, or duck ― who can tell ― doesn’t look promising. It looks like something little kids have scrawled on a sidewalk.
As I put jigsaw to plywood expecting disaster, Father Christmas grants an unlikely gift. The silhouette looks pretty good. It looks really good. Dovelike… smooth… Picassoesque… I warm to the project. I think about the Jolly Old Fat Man.
St. Nicholas, Nicholas of Myra, Nicholas of Bari, all names of the same fourth century cleric who is the Christian predecessor of the secular Santa, made his reputation, as many saints do, with kindness and miracles. He saved three girls from lives as streetwalkers by giving each a dowry of gold. Saints, fairies and leprechauns all pay in gold
. I admire the honesty of imaginary creatures.
Much more impressively, St. Nicholas is also said to have restored three children to life after an evil butcher cut them up and soaked them in tubs of brine. No wonder nostalgia for the Dark Ages is scarce. But as miracles go, raising people from the dead is hard to beat. Nick was a shoe-in for sainthood.
Six hundred years after his death, devoted fans boosted St. Nick’s remains from his hometown of Myra, Turkey, and brought them to Bari, Italy. In 1087 Frederic II built a basilica to store the relics. There is little that will improve your saintly reputation more than a king building a cathedral to shelter your bones. St. Nick’s popularity surged throughout Europe.
He became the patron saint of Greece and Russia, of thousands of churches, of children, unmarried girls and ironically, sailors, whose interest in unmarried girls is anything but saintly. Apropos of our modern secular celebration and its orgy of shopping, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of merchants and pawnbrokers.
I mess around with the Duck of Peace some more. Back lighting doesn’t work. I paint it white. I try rope lights behind the silhouette. It looks like an unfinished road sign, offering incomplete directions to nowhere.
After the Reformation St. Nicholas fell into disfavor in all the Protestant countries except Holland. Protestants could be such wet blankets. The Puritans in England and America banned celebrating Christmas. But Sinterklaas, as he was known by the Dutch, lived on, and blended with the legend of a Nordic magician who punished naughty children and gave presents to good ones. Sinterklaas made it across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam, later New York, where he became Santa Claus.
I hang the plywood duck. It spins in the wind. I take it down again, add a couple stabilizing wires, and put it back up. A foot and a half of rope lights won’t light. I take it down again and spend an hour replacing defective rope lights.
Santa wasn’t a player in American holiday lore until the middle of the 19th century. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, (“‘twas the night before Christmas…”) became enormously popular and began our love affair with the fat man. Moore didn’t even bother claiming authorship until 20 years later, when Santa had become a lot better known.
By the middle of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast, who invented the comical images of donkeys and elephants to symbolize the two parties, used Moore’s description to draw the first popular version of our modern Santa. The jolly red-suited Santa was further refined and fixed in our holiday tradition by a popular series of advertisements drawn by Haddon Sundblum for the Coca Cola Company beginning in 1931. Never underestimate the power of a good ad or of wearing red.
I finally got the duck outlined in lights and stable on its wires, but it was still unimpressive until our friend Christopher showed up with some design advice. I can count on Chrisopher to warn me of the worst fashion and interior decorating faux pas which, as a chronic heterosexual, are a constant peril for me. He suggests a blue floodlight. The Duck of Peace is transformed. No longer a childish pencil sketch on plywood, it now looks cool… a grown up symbol… the perfect holiday image for my family this year, our first without the kindly deception of Santa Claus.
Our two boys are not little any more. Home schooling has extended their naïveté by a year or two, but now, at 11 and 12, certainty has replaced suspicion. They boldly tell us they know the truth. My wife and I, like Democrats caught with pistols, have no comment. We neither confirm nor deny, but we know we’ve been found out. I love how grown up and smart our sons have become. I mourn their lost innocence.
My holiday decorating chore is done. Even without Santa’s help, I’m ready to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. At the end of my sons’ boyhood, in my home behind the Blue Plywood Duck of Peace and in yours wherever you are, may the kind and generous spirit of Saint Nicholas bless us, one and all.