In Richmond (located a few miles southwest of St. Cloud), Christmas starts on Dec. 5 with the celebration of St. Nicholas Feast Eve, a Catholic custom that was a precursor to many of the things associated with Christmas. The special day’s festival is highlighted when St. Nicholas goes house-to-house to prepare the children for Christmas by telling them to behave, obey their parents, and do good things for others. In return, the children are treated with candy and presents. This is a tradition the Plantenberg family of Richmond has been doing for generations and continues the tradition to this day by Tucker Plantenberg who has been doing it for 40 years. His grandfather and father preceded him in his role as St. Nicholas in Richmond. Back in the 1940s, Plantenberg said, St. Nicholas in Richmond was accompanied by the devil called Black Peter who put the fear of the devil in the children to prepare them for Christmas. Before elves and eight tiny reindeer, St. Nicholas had this much more menacing assistant. This companion was the physical opposite of St. Nicholas. Tall and gaunt with a dark beard and hair, Black Peter was associated with the punitive side of Christmas. Traditionally, St. Nicholas would hand out presents to good children, while it fell to Black Peter to dole out coal (and sometimes knocks on the head) to children who misbehaved. He was dressed in black and had a whip and a cane. Maybe that is where “candy cane” came from. “The kids were pretty scared,” recalled Plantenberg. “We don’t do that anymore,” he said with a chuckle. Plantenberg said this started as a promotion for their grocery store in Richmond. Parents would come in and order candy or presents and ask the Plantenbergs to deliver it on St. Nicholas Eve. The parents would also put a note with the candy, telling St. Nick something their child did wrong and he could talk to him/her about it. They have done as many as 75 homes in one night and now they average about 40 home visits per night. Another member of the St. Nicholas crew is Ron Willenbring who also works at Plantenberg’s butcher shop. He has been St. Nicholas for 12 years and said the kids are really good. “We get the kids to sing songs or say a prayer,” said Willenbring. Nicholas, the saint of children, lived in the fourth century AD, was the predecessor to Santa Claus and the custom of hanging up stockings to get presents. He was a very rich man who was very kind and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it. One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney of a poor man’s house. The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! He did this three nights in a row because the poor man had three daughters and they couldn’t get married because of the lack of money. Because of his generosity the daughters married and he was later named a saint by the Catholic church. St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, is the patron saint of New York City. That’s why, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, Santa Claus arrives last in the train. It’s a patron’s celebration. Kathy Thielen comes from a family of 13 children and she has vivid memories of St. Nick as she grew up in St. Nicholas, Minn., a town south of Richmond. “We were scared of St. Nick. We hid behind the chimney when he knocked on our door,” she said. St. Nicholas brought them treats, sang Christmas songs with them and said a couple of prayers. It prepared them for a merry Christmas. Alma Stang remembers when St. Nick and the black devil who came with a whip and a cane to their house in St. Martin, Minn. many years ago. St. Martin is about 10-12 miles west of Richmond. When they moved to Richmond, St. Nick was by himself and the kids enjoyed seeing St. Nick. “Our grandkids are already planning for the Dec. 5, St. Nicholas Feast Eve party,” she said. “The neatest thing is the kids are believers. Their eyes get real big when they see St. Nicholas and you realize you are a special person to them,” said Plantenburg.
Christmas tradition continues in Richmond