As Saint Nicholas Day has only just passed, I like to think that almost all readers would have awoken to gifts of confectionary left by the Saint rather than being by-passed altogether on the advice of his side-kick Père Fouettard– aka “The Whipping Father”. However, as we found out last year, this individual is prone to leaving ribbon-tied birch twigs for all, including those who fill their shoes with hay or straw for the saint’s horse or donkey. His sidekick’s reasoning is that even the most well-behaved young citizen is prone to a lapse every now and then.
The tradition of small gifts of sweets and dried fruits being left in children’s shoes has its origins when the Bishop of Myra (Demre in Turkey) assisted an impoverished family by throwing bags of dowry money down the chimney to save their daughters from being sold into slavery. Today, Père Fouettard – aka Père La Pouque in Normandy and Hans Trapp in Alsace – sounds to many Britons as though he should have been played by Christopher Lee in a Hammer Horror Film, preferably with Peter Cushing as St. Nicholas.
However, the figure with the martinet is also a sign that the Christmas has commenced. There is not the scope in this blog for a debate about the commercialisation of the season, but I will merely suggest that France has a long tradition of being far less susceptible to American cultural tropes than the UK. Special foods mark the day, and a meal of Pork with Mustard & Apples followed by “Tarte Normande Saint-Nicolas” does indeed sound like a delightful way to celebrate the 6th December. Hot chocolate is reputedly the saint’s beverage of choice, and it really should be accompanied by some Mannele, a special form of brioche, and gingerbread biscuits.
This charming celebration is also the opportunity for a temporary release from the stress and the chores of this modern life. Wherever you are, we hope you had a peaceful Saint Nicholas Day – and were not left too many birch twigs.