St. Nick's: a merry Milwaukee tradition
This article originally ran in 2017.
The observance of St. Nicholas Day – often just called "St. Nick's" – lands on the short list of primarily-in-Milwaukee occurrences like Bloody Mary chasers, candy raisins and the word "bubbler."
It's true: In the United States, St. Nick's is not observed nationally and is only practiced in a handful of cities, all of which have a strong German influence, including Milwaukee; Evansville, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; Fredericksburg, Texas; Newport News, Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri.
"I always thought St. Nick was like a fun 'bonus Santa' growing up," says Elizabeth Moen, a Milwaukee mom who continues to celebrate with her husband and three children
The custom, which is observed in the morning of Dec. 6, includes a Santa-esque character named St. Nicholas leaving treats and toys in children's shoes or stockings the night before.
"St. Nick's kicked things off; it's a signal that Christmas is coming," says Benjamin Funk, who grew up celebrating the holiday with his southeastern Wisconsin-based family and continues the tradition with his wife and two children today.
When Funk found out his wife wasn't familiar with St. Nick's Day, he was surprised.
"I shouldn't have been surprised, she is from a different part of the world, but where I grew up, St. Nick's was like the 4th of July – a holiday that everyone celebrated," says Funk.
Whether kids leave out shoes or stockings, many of the St. Nick offerings are the same: candy, ornaments, small toys and fruit. Sometimes the gifts are more unique. Funk remembers receiving a Pac-Man coin purse in his shoe.
"I remember wanting my feet to grow so my shoes would be bigger, and there'd be more room for St. Nick's stuff," says Funk.
Oranges are a traditional shoe or stocking-stuffer, and there are a few theories as to why this is, perhaps because oranges were considered a sacred treat during the Great Depression.
Crystal Cresci says to this day she is amazed by the size of the oranges in her St. Nick's stocking.
"Our stockings were filled with nuts, small chocolates, a pair of socks, a small toy, toothbrushes and the biggest oranges and apples you've ever seen," says Cresci. "I am still wondering where and how my mom found fruit that size."
Sheila Keaton grew up on Milwaukee's Northwest Side and she always got an orange – along with candy and a little toy.
"It was my dad's contribution; he always got an orange in his stocking when he was a kid," she says.
Even though Natalie Spehert, who was raised on Milwaukee's South Side, always received an orange from St. Nick, she does not put them in her kids' stockings. Instead, she gives them a special pair of Christmas pajamas, an ornament and candy.
"No oranges," says Spehert. "My oldest in 16, and he loves the tradition, but would prefer his stocking were filled with beef jerky and sh*tty soda."
For many St. Nick observers, the gifts changed when they got older.
"When we grew into teenagers, we would sometimes get coal in our stockings," says Rachel Davauer. "Granted, it was candy coal, but the message was still clear: We weren't exactly perfectly behaved all year."
When Keaton and her sister were in middle school, they started to receive practical gifts from St. Nick like batteries and tape.
"These most likely came from our mother," says Keaton, "We were always stealing her tape to hang up posters in our bedrooms and all of the double-A batteries for our Walkmans."
Keaton, who has a 2-year-old daughter, plans to continue the tradition of St. Nick's with her.
"For now, she will just get fun stuff, but I could see giving her practical items in the future," says Keaton. "And she will always get an orange."
Laura Baruch Sherman found out the hard way that St. Nick does not visit every Milwaukee child – even if it sometimes seems that way. Sherman, who was raised in a Jewish family, decided to try observing St. Nicholas Day without telling her parents.
"When I was in elementary school, my classmates told me to put my shoes out for St. Nick, and if he didn't come, that meant I was a bad kid," says Sherman. "I woke up to empty shoes in our Kosher house. I was hysterical."
When her parents finally calmed her down, she shared with them what happened and they told her the truth about St. Nick.
"For good measure, they told me about Santa and the Easter Bunny, too, but told me to keep it a secret," says Sherman.
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