The truth about St. Nicholas is complicated. Instead of a jolly old guy bringing presents to children, the real saint, born in the fourth century in what is now Turkey, once slapped a heretic and is said to have saved three women from a life of prostitution by dropping bags of dowry gold through their windows. The patron of Russia, he’s also said to watch over travelers, sailors and children. In medieval times, mariners would greet with other with the phrase, “May St. Nicholas’s hand be at the tiller.” Today is his feast day, celebrated in many cultures by setting out stockings or shoes for the saint to fill with oranges or chocolate.
Indianapolis poet Terry Kirts, who this very day is masterminding the IUPUI English department’s holiday party, has written a midlife poem in which he measures his own life against the saint’s. In our latitude, this day is often dark, and Kirts uses the wintry feast to meditate on solitude, longing, and hospitality. Peel some of those foil-wrapped chocolate coins, and have a look.
Song for Saint Nicholas Day Another dim morning, I stare into my shoes. The bishop has not visited me with his dowry of peppermint, his sachet of bittersweet gold. Instead, I’m forced to fetch my own hod of coal, to pray the heat back into my apportioned space while the rooftops rattle with nothing but wind. Oh, to be like my grandmother as a girl: sufficient with her orange, her licorice whip. To dream while the paving stones cooled at my feet, sleeping through each arthritic creak of the shanty’s frozen boards. How un-Byzantine my wishes: a bit of sun to read the paper by, a kitchen someone else has cleaned. The gray day hangs in windows like a confessional’s opaque screen. One candle to stave off longing and one to bring it back. Could I have slapped the heretic howling before me, burned idolaters’ churches, saved the innocent three? Deliberate as a cleric, I bake, remembering the spinster aunt who wept endlessly into her bowl of dough. She, too, was tortured by her own virtue, yet they knew her macaroons all over town, dunked them like grace into their grateful cups of tea. I push a dull thumb into each compliant dollop, whisper a prayer above the oven’s hot gush. Later like a child of Brussels or Minsk, I take my supper by light of the evening star, sparing myself before another night’s riches. In sleep, for once, my tossing does not trouble me. I see how I’ll survive the years: his hand on the tiller, the twin spires of his miter thwarting the storm.
This poem appeared in Terry Kirts’s To the Refrigerator Gods (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010).