VIOLA - My family once lived in an apartment while our home was being renovated, and my mom sometimes spoke about the house’s fireplace. I only knew about fireplaces from pictures I’d seen in the books she read me.
I had visions of long red and green stockings, overflowing with candy and toys, hung on the mantel above a roaring fire. I’d heard about Santa coming down the chimney, and I worried he’d get stuck in it with his red velvet bag stuffed with goodies. Would his suit get ruined with black soot? What if my dad had a fire going? Thanks to my brother and sister, I also worried about children who would find only coal and sticks in their stockings.
Later, I discovered that some families had fireplaces while others didn’t; some honored St. Nicholas Day, many had never heard of it, and others laid out their stockings on Christmas Eve. Whatever the practice is, I love traditions, including my own insistence that Christmas lights go around and around the tree and not just back and forth across the front!
When we finally moved into our new ranch-style home, I saw our fireplace for the first time. It had off-white bricks extending from the top of the fireplace door to the ceiling. There wasn’t a mantel ledge for our socks to hang from but there was a low bench perfect for sitting on and warming our backsides. Around the fireplace opening was a gold-colored frame encasing a black chain-link screen that could be opened and closed by tugging its chain tassels.
The fireplace quickly became the hub of our winter family evenings. My brother and I would compete in a game we designed to see who had the toughest feet.
We’d wait while my dad built a roaring fire (after yelling to remind him to open the damper). Once we felt it was hot enough, we’d lie down on the rug with our bare feet on top of the bench, wiggling forward to make sure we were equally distant from the flames. Once we had our feet as close to the screen as we could get, we’d hold still and wait for the first one to howl and lose the game. I may have been younger, but I was more determined than my brother.
The tradition of St. Nick stockings began for me at this time. So did the endless teasing and threatening from my mom and siblings about getting coal and sticks in mine, every time I whined, pouted, or misbehaved.
On St. Nick’s Eve, we’d run around trying to find the biggest socks that could hold the most treats. I’d head for my dad’s sock drawer because he had the largest feet. We laid the socks carefully on the bench, full of anticipation. Throughout the evening, as we played cards in front of the fireplace, I’d glance over at my stocking, fuss with it, and hope like heck I’d not find any coal in it the next day.
Always the second one up in the morning, after my dad, I'd half stumble, half run, down the long hallway. Yawning, rubbing sleepy seeds from the corners of my eyes, I’d rush into the living room. There I’d find our stockings looking like chipmunks’ cheeks stuffed with nuts—and indeed there would be nuts in each of them.
In the toe of my stocking I’d find a tangerine, warm and squishy. Sometimes there’d be a popcorn ball too, and loads of peanuts in the shell. If we were lucky we also might find Silly Putty, Pick-Up Sticks, jacks, and even a box of Cracker Jacks!
While it’s been years since I’ve put out a stocking for St. Nicholas to fill, I did continue the tradition with my daughter, and she with her children. I’ve since learned some families use their shoes instead of stockings.
I’m glad this time-honored tradition still exists and even gladder to report that I never did find any coal in my stocking.