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December 1, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
If you've been able resist an advance peek, today's the day to open the first door on your Herpa Advent Calendar. Haven't got one? Well, there's still time to order your own and have some fun playing catch up when it arrives.
When I was a little boy, one of my favorite Christmas treats was the stocking. While my Mother had made stockings for everyone else in the family, mine was a gift from my Great-Aunt Ann. It was red and fancy, lined with what felt like satin, and festooned with beads and bells.
Unlike many of our North American holiday traditions, which trace their origins back to Northern Europe, the stocking custom is said to have begun with a generous Catholic cleric from Asia Minor who lived almost seventeen centuries ago.
Few details are known about Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, and much of the information we have comes from accounts of his life written centuries after he died. Some even dispute that he existed at all but there does seem to be enough evidence to rebut those claims.
Nicolas was born the third century A.D. to a wealthy family in Parara, a city in Lycia which was an ancient country in what is now southern Turkey. His parents died in an epidemic when he was still young, leaving him a sizable inheritance.
Even as a youth, Nicholas was remarkable for his piety and dedicated his fortune to helping the poor. He moved to Myra, another Lycian city, to continue his studies and was ordained as a priest.
The third century was still a dangerous time to be a Christian. Diocletian, a soldier from Illyria, a city in today's Dalmatian region of Croatia, was proclaimed Emperor of the Roman Empire in November 284. While he tolerated Christianity because of his wife's faith in the early years of his reign, he issued an edict forbidding its practice in February 303, which led to the destruction of churches, mass imprisonments, torture and a number of executions.
Nicolas was caught up in the mass arrests and was exiled, imprisoned and tortured. It was not until Diocletian's successor, Galerius, issued an edict of toleration on his deathbed in 311 that the groundwork was laid for Nicholas to be released by Emperor Constantine.
Following his release, Nicholas returned to his home where he resumed his ministry and life of piety and good works. While he was still a relatively young man, he was named Bishop of Myra.
While not every record shows he was there, some ancient documents say Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325. This was the first "worldwide" meeting of the bishops of the Christian churches at which many doctrinal differences in the early church were settled and the original Nicene Creed was formulated.
Following the convocation, Nicholas returned to Myra. He traveled often and there are many accounts of his good works and a number of miracles have been attributed to him. Following his death on December 6, 343 (345 and 354 are also named as the year of his death), Constantine ordered a church to be built a Myra to house Nicholas' remains.
As best I can determine, the Bishop of Myra was elevated to sainthood sometime in the fourth century A.D., becoming St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, sailors and literally dozens of other groups, including bankers and pawnbrokers, who took the three bags of gold and turned them into the three balls that are still the symbol of their trade.
In 1087, following the conquest of the region by the Turks, who were followers of Islam, Italian sailors took St. Nicholas' remains from Myra and took them to Bari, Italy. Every year since then, Bari has celebrated the arrival of the remains.
Following the revision of the Roman Catholic calendar in 1968, which trimmed a number of saints from the rolls, some began to say Nicholas had been discredited by the church because his existence and works could not be verified. However, that's not true. Saint Nicholas was among the ninety saints for whom strict observation of their feast days was no longer required for Roman Catholics but the western church still venerates him as a saint and he remains one of the most popular. In addition, Saint Nicholas retains his high standing in the Eastern Orthodox churches and is the patron saint of many cities and regions, including some in the U.S.
It was an act of kindness attributed to St. Nicholas that led to the many different traditions that, over time, became the Christmas stocking.
There was a good man in Nicholas' parish whose wife had died, leaving him with three daughters. To make things worse, circumstances had left the family nearly destitute.
When it came time for the daughters to marry, the father was in despair because he had no money to provide a dowry for any of them, eliminating any hope of good marriages for his children.
On Christmas Eve, the daughters had washed out their clothing and hung their woolen stockings over the fireplace to dry. At the same time, Bishop Nicholas was quietly visiting the homes in his parish, making sure each of the children had a gift of some sort, which was a custom in keeping with his mission of using his wealth to provide for the needy.
Stopping by the man's house, Nicholas looked in the window and saw the family had gone to bed. Seeing the daughters' stockings, and wishing to remain anonymous, the bishop made up three small bags of gold, climbed up on the roof and threw them down the chimney where they landed in the stockings.
The next morning when the daughters awoke they found their stockings contained enough gold for them to provide a suitable dowry.
In our household, though they never contained bags of gold, the stockings were very special. While the other gifts were off limits until after breakfast, your stocking was fair game as soon as you woke up. In my case, that was always well before dawn.
While some merchants would have you believe costly gifts like MP3 players and jewelry are the perfect stocking stuffers, the contents of our stockings were always more simple. There would always be an apple, an orange, some candy (and new toothbrush) and a few small gifts with a price of perhaps a dollar or so. Incidentally, the orange should be placed in the toe, as it symbolizes the bag of gold that fell into each daughter's stocking.
Each year, every stocking in our home was topped off with a candy cane which is another Christmas tradition with origins in the church. In 1670, the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral gave sticks of hard sugar candy to children attending ceremonies during the holiday season. At the time, the only religious significance was the candy kept the kids from fidgeting during the services. In order to add a little meaning to the sweets, the choirmaster had them formed with a curve at the top to represent a shepherd's crook. Peppermint flavoring came later and it wasn't until the twentieth century that the red stripes appeared. Incidentally, there is one more religious connection that is well-documented. The first machine developed to automate candy cane production was invented in the 1950s by Harding Keller, a Catholic priest. No mysticism here, though. Father Keller's sister had married Bob McCormack, one of the founders of Bobs Candies, Inc. which was on its way to becoming the world's largest producer of candy canes, and Keller created the machine at his brother-in-law's request.
In keeping with our family's tradition, I wanted to recommend a few ideas for stocking stuffers in a similar price range, adjusted for inflation. According to the American Institute for Economic Research, $6.94 has the same purchasing power as a 1957 dollar, so I used that as my benchmark. By the way, I picked 1957 quite arbitrarily: it was one of the best Christmases of my childhood and it was the year I turned eight, the same age our youngest will be this Christmas.
Even with that relatively modest spending limit, you'll find a number of candidates right here. One of the unpainted Promotex tractors would be a good choice. Choose from a GMC General, Freightliner FL or White Road Commander for the truck modeler or model railroader on your list.
Another bargain is a 2-car set of Herpa's Magic cars. The package is perfectly sized for a stocking stuffer and they're all back in stock. Most of the cars on which the Magic models are based were available in the United States.
Testors offers a nice selection of modeler's tools priced under the limit like hobby knives and sanding film which are stocking size and always welcome.
How about a game? WizKids has one of the neatest game concepts on the market. About the same size as a pack of baseball cards, Pirates of the Spanish Main and Rocketmen are constructible strategy games complete with everything you need except a tabletop on which to play. I first saw Pirates of the Spanish Main at the American International Toy Fair last February and was instantly impressed.
The WizKids games come with playing card-sized plastic sheets containing either wooden ships or spacecraft models that are easy to punch out and assemble. There are also cardstock cards that describe the abilities and attributes of the various pieces. There's a book of rules and even a tiny die to roll. All for less than four bucks.
The Wizkids games are easy enough for an older child or teen to enjoy but challenging enough for an adult. Other packs can be added to expand the game and the WizKids website has plenty of support and tips for players.
And ideas for the ladies? Well, you've got about 23 days to think of something. Of course, there's always jewelry…
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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