The first snow of December is winter’s first gift, coming from Saint Nicholas, yet not many know its significance. For that sneeze feeling you have in your nose before winter’s first coat falls, that’s just Saint Nicholas’ beard tickling your cheek.
At the beginning of December, the flakes spiral and dance to the ground the same way Saint Nicholas’ white beard floats behind him as he strides along the road. Each winter since that first one, almost two thousand years ago.
But don’t look out for his arrival for you won’t see him on the road. Cladded in a brown cassock, with white hair framing his silhouette like a cloud, and his silvery beard thrown over his shoulder – so he won’t tread on it – Saint Nicholas’ figure is more like that of a majestic tree than of a man. In his right hand, he holds a stick, a branch of an apple tree, and over his left shoulder, he balances a bundle. It isn’t a big sack like some would expect, rather a modest one, well used, and almost hidden by his snowy mane.
What got him going in the first place? What keeps him on the road still? Some say it is his love for God, for helping those in need. Some believe it is the joy he feels in his heart whenever he offers that much-needed contribution.
For the sum of all the joy that December’s first snow brings to all, is equal to the joy that swells Saint Nicholas’ heart when he strides forward one more year, and makes it snow, a sure tell-tell sign of his impending arrival.
The white stone arches of the maritime city of Patara, in Lycia, have long been reduced to ruins, and its once busy harbor is now but a white beach. But once, during the 3rd century, this town founded by none other but the son of Apollo, the god of archery, truth, and healing, was a known harbor at the Mediterranean Sea, and along the trading routes going through Asia Minor. It is said that even Paul and Luke changed ships here.
Saint Nicholas first walked this earth here, in Patara, before settling in the nearby city of Myra. He was fortunate to be born in a wealthy family so he could enjoy a formal education. During those times only upper-class males had such rights. Yet all young Nicholas wanted to do was to learn about God and aid those less fortunate. And helping them he did, for after the timeous death of his parents, he shared his wealth with the poor.
And he did so in a very peculiar way, for he was a rather shy young man who preferred to observe, rather than judge, and to act quietly, rather than boast.
Night after night Nicholas donned a brown cassock and tiptoed around his town, secretly delivering food and gold coins to those families he knew were in dire need.
One such family was that of a widower who had three hard-working daughters, yet they were too poor to even get married for their father had no money to pay for their dowry. Unable to do much work outside the home to provide for themselves as women were not even considered fit for labor, a harsh life, of poverty and uncertainty, was foreseen for his three girls.
It was the coldest winter they’ve ever known, and the wise men of Patra were whispering it was God’s wrath that had fallen over their village, for people had turned away from one another. Work was scarce, food had become a sweet dream, and even wood for fire was a dear sight.
They had never heard such howling, as if not one, but a clutter of lynxes found refuge outside the city gates.
They had never seen such a snow bridge extending the land far into a still sea now, and narrowing the strait to a choke, freezing all activity in the harbor.
They had never smelled so many different kinds of fire, for the people of Patra having run out of the usual amount of wood stacked for winter, had resourced to burning rags, leaves, even old trash to keep warm.
One such night, all that the widower’s family of four had left for dinner were four potatoes they cooked over the shadow of a fire. When dinner was ready the father asked the oldest daughter to take his cooked potato along with some sticks and deliver them to their neighbor, a lonely woman. Nobody saw the young girl rushing through the still village in that icy dark, nobody but a man dressed in a long cassock. He saw the girl’s good deed and the smile that grew on his face was the strength that kept him going forward that night.
For he too was a lone visitor in that arctic darkness, moving silently from one needy shelter to the next.
One year passed and it was time for the oldest daughter to marry, yet both she and her father knew it will not happen for they were, each day, poorer than the day before. And winter had come again.
Except that one morning when they woke up the father and his three daughters found a pouch with gold coins outside their front door. They were merry of the unexpected gift, they shared some of it with their needy neighbors, and it was still enough left for the eldest daughter to marry.
But where did the money came from? The father would have like to know.
But we know, don’t we?
One more year passed and the time came for the second daughter to marry. Yet money was scarce again. Until one early morning, when another pouch with gold coins was discovered outside their home. Merry were they, a happy wedding happened and two neighbors were aided this time.
But where did the money had come from, again? The girl’s father promised himself to find out.
Although we do know, don’t we?
So when one more year passed and winter gripped the village once more, the girl’s father hid outside his home, pulling his cloak tight around him, thin protection against winter’s sharp bite, his hood lowered against the gale, seeking shelter behind their only olive tree. Waiting, more eager to discover the identity of their benefactor than he was worried that chills will take shelter in his old bones. And just as Nicholas approached the poor man’s house the father stepped out of the shadow. Nicholas of Myra took a step backward and threw the pouch through the window, thus it landing in a shoe, then ran. He wished more than anything for his gesture to remain anonymous. The girl’s father only caught sight of a man dressed in a common cassock, departing in a hurry. So he followed him and thus he witnessed more good deeds.
And that winter night the old man felt less and less the bite of the arctic wind, the warm blanket of hope and gratitude settling on his skinny shoulders.
And he even caught sight of their benefactor’s face. A young man, whose eyes spread such wisdom and love, as only the city’s elders’ did. A man who shed a tear outside each needy household, yet smiled after leaving the gift behind. A man whose shoulders hunched more and more upon leaving each establishment, as if for each gift he left behind he chose to take away some of the troubles, the worries, the pain hanging over each family.
It was the night between the 5th and the 6th of December, a date the poor man’s family will always remember, a date that remained in folktales and is celebrated by Christians as the night of Saint Nicholas, Moș Nicolae.
I remember, as a child, cleaning my shoes and placing them by the window, hoping that Saint Nicholas will leave an orange and a few chocolates in them. The hope of being remembered. Small joys for a small child, apart for winter’s first snow.
Some say that if they’ve been naughty they found a small wand made from the wood of an apple tree. Maybe even torn from Saint Nicholas’ staff. It is said that if it blooms when placed in water is sure sign that Saint Nicholas forgave all their naughty deeds and that he smiles again.
How Does Snow Smells Like?
And not only the first snow, but the way the air smells around that first snow. Clean and fresh, soft, as if it’s just been washed, although it hasn’t. Isn’t it? I write from memories.
To me, snow smells of pine trees, woody, of open spaces, of holiday, of promises and of hopes. It smells as if anything ~ good ~ is possible, and as if dreams do come true. First snow smells like that.
I know that the frozen air has the opposite effect on the human olfactory system, and that we actually have less chances of smelling when it is cold outside because the mucus inside our nostrils dries up, so less particles reach the nerve receptors in our noses. Yet I do solemnly swear that I can smell the first snow and that I can smell the change in the air, before it first snows.
And I know that the air is supposed to be extra ionized when it snows, as it hold more moisture. Add it is a drop in temperature and a decrease in air pressure that makes it snows. Yet isn’t it more to that first snow than science?
For there is a change in the air before it snows. Some call it happiness or anticipation. For others it is the emotional charge of childhood.
🙂 For Dan’s Thursday Doors blog feature over at No Facilities– do visit and participate by creating your own blog post celebrating a world of doors. 🙂
I’ll leave you with a face in a door: