Photograph of Trenkle's Sausage Company sign used by permission. Original photograph (Image #151), taken by Cara Pusateri of Dubuque, Iowa, a few years ago as the building on which the sign was painted was being demolished. It was located on Central Avenue across from the former Trenkle's Sausage Company.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A German Christmas Tradition on Wood Street

In my very German-American Catholic community of Dubuque, Iowa, most everyone, including my family celebrated St. Nicholas’ feast day every December 6th.

It began with a phone call the day before, which always seemed to catch us by surprise. One of us five sisters would rush to answer the phone not knowing the caller. “Holz’s residence, Barbara speaking.” It was a task we usually loved and fought over.

During this call, however, a deep, husky voice asked us if we’d been good. We tried to pass the phone to an unsuspecting sister. Did we do what we were told? It was St. Nick himself calling to see if we had been obedient and deserving of a visit that night. He questioned each of us in turn. It didn’t dawn on us to lie because we knew he’d been watching everything we did and said. If we had been especially disrespectful or sassy, we risked getting only a lump of black coal or sticks, as my middle sister once did. She waited one whole week before getting her stocking full of fruit, nuts, and candy.

That night, we hung my dad’s grey wool hunting socks with the red toe because they were the largest in a house full of girls’ much smaller feet. Our home, like most in Dubuque, didn’t have a fireplace mantel, so we hung the socks on the dining room buffet and for once, without being told, we took a bath, put on our p.j.s, said our prayers, and jumped under the comforter so St. Nicholas would have no excuse to skip our house. In the morning, the phone call already endured and forgotten, we would grab our bulging sock and dump everything onto the floor…always a box of animal crackers, loose nuts still in their shells, a few pieces of hard candy, and a prized tangerine and Red Delicious apple, extremely scarce items in the local A&P bins during the winter months in the 40s and 50s. It didn’t matter that the gifts were always the same; their predictability aided our anticipation. We were never disappointed.

But who was the St. Nicholas impersonator, really? Even when we were older and wiser, we had to ask our mother before discovering that our great Aunt Leona played the role of St. Nicholas. In the late 50s and 60s, she may have grown weary of this task as she grew older (she died in 1968 at age 87), because my youngest sister says that our Uncle Nick was the one who called.

I left home for nursing school at age 18 and my subsequent dorm rooms and apartments were in communities with large Scandinavian, Polish, or Italian families, none of whom honored St. Nicholas as much as my hometown did, if at all. It was easy to forgo hanging a stocking. My children and grandchildren hang stockings that have been beautifully needle pointed by my mother, whom I’m sure created them for the Feast of St. Nicholas, but instead we hang them the same day we put up our tree.

This tradition could have been carried to my family from German-speaking Europe by either my Luxembourgian (Nicolas), German (Nikolaus), or Austrian (Niklaus) great, great grandparents, all who came from countries that celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas, but I read on the St. Nicholas Center web site ( that the customs we grew up with were from Germany, including Ruprecht, his feared soot-covered helper.