Setting Out My Shoes

Just before we went to sleep, my sister and I scurried to the mudroom, found our winter boots, and dusted the dirt off of them. We placed them at the window, overlooking our mess of a backyard, and then went upstairs to bed, impatient for what surprises the morning would bring. It was December 5th, 2005, and Szent Miklós was coming.

Mikulás and Krampusz in an 1865 illustration, via Wikimedia.

Szent Miklós—also known as Mikulás—is Hungary’s version of Saint Nicholas. Though the American “St. Nick” is simply one of Santa Claus’s pseudonyms, the saint persists as a unique figure in many European countries, delivering sweets and small gifts to well-behaved children on the eve of his feast day–in Hungary, by placing the goodies in their neatly-polished boots. He is accompanied by Krampusz (or Krampus, in other countries), a terrifying beast who leaves switches, sticks, or coal in the shoes of naughty children.

Mikulás, to me, isn’t just another jolly old elf bringing Christmas candy. Nine years ago, my family was living in a quiet town on the edge of Hungary’s largest lake while my dad taught English at a local school. It was a strange year in many ways. Though my sister and I rarely had the opportunity to interact with other kids our age, our parents were determined to have their daughters know something of the world and made an effort to introduce us to the culture we had been thrown into. We traveled regularly, both in and out of the country–an incredible opportunity for anyone, let alone two young girls.

On the other hand, there were times when the comforts of home seemed unimaginably distant. Simple things we had taken for granted–chocolate chips, the post office, even books–were suddenly out of reach. In retrospect, I realize that it was an incredibly tough year for my parents, who spoke basically no Hungarian and didn’t know who to ask for help but were still expected to soldier on.

Christmas, my sister and I knew, would not be what we were used to. Presents would be small and relatively simple, both for financial reasons and because they would need to be either packed or abandoned when we returned to the U.S. Our usual traditions–filling the CD player with Christmas albums, trimming the tree with an increasingly-eclectic collection of baubles–were boxed up in my parents’ closet back in Oregon. When we finally found a tree, it was a small one–we set it on top of a nightstand, if I recall correctly–and we decorated it with a set of ornaments from IKEA.

So, in the spirit of cultural engagement and in an attempt to make the season a little more festive, our parents taught us about Mikulás. On the morning of December 6th, we came downstairs to find our boots packed with candy and topped with two wooden puzzle balls–“Sticks!” my parents announced. Szent Miklós had come in the night.

Saint Nicholas may not be particularly well-recognized here in the States, but I still remember him when the first week of December rolls around. Mikulás isn’t simply a symbol of good tidings and an incentive to be good for the next year. For me, he’s also a reminder of a year when my parents did their very best to work bits of wonder into our lives. A reminder that even in the dark of winter, there are people who will show you they love you, even through something as simple as tucking some candy in a pair of shoes.

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