I am very excited about today's book for a number of reasons. For one, I grew up celebrating St. Nicholas Day and often felt weird and o...

Read and Rise Book Club 'The St. Nicholas Day Snow' - December 2020

I am very excited about today's book for a number of reasons. For one, I grew up celebrating St. Nicholas Day and often felt weird and out of place because no one outside of my family or church really knew about it. Everyone else just celebrated and got gifts on Christmas! So I was very excited to find a book about St. Nicholas Day that I can share the story and traditions with my children and with all of you! 

Second, I connected with author Charlotte Riggle through a Multicultural Children's Book Day group and was thrilled to be able to collaborate with her. She answered all my questions about her book (interview is after the video and activity) and created a video read aloud so that I could share her beautiful story with you! 

Featured story: "The St. Nicholas Day Snow" by Charlotte Riggle

Activity: I actually have two activities to go along with this story - you can choose one or do both! Growing up, we were told that good children would get gifts (especially fruits, nuts, and chocolates) and naughty children would get a twig. When I was teaching preschool, I found out that one of my fellow teachers also celebrated St. Nicholas Day. She told me that her mom turned the naughty twig into a treat and she would decorate a twig with ribbons and candies for each child. So the first activity is to find a nice twig that you can decorate and give someone on St. Nicholas Day. If you have some candy to hang/tape onto it, go ahead! If not you can still paint it and decorate it with ribbons, pom poms...anything you think looks beautiful!

Activity two is to make snowball cookies like Catherine and Elizabeth. This recipe is vegan so it is perfect for anyone with dietary restrictions or keeping the Advent fast.
Snowball Cookies
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. Combine 2 cups flour, 2 cups finely chopped pecans, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 cup coconut oil (or 2 sticks softened vegan margarine), and 1 tsp vanilla in a large mixer bowl. Beat at low speed until well mixed, scraping sides if necessary.
3. Use your hands to shape rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into 1" balls. Place 1" apart on cookies sheets. Bake 20-25 minutes or until just barely browned. Cool completely on a rack.
4. Make the glaze by combining 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar, 2 tbsp light corn syrup, and 2 tbsp coconut milk in a bowl. If the glaze is too thick, add coconut milk 1 tsp at a time. 
5. Place waxed paper under the cookies to catch the drips then spoon the glaze over the cookies. Before the glaze dries, sprinkle the cookies with snowflake-shaped sprinkles, white sparkling sugar, or finely shredded coconut. Share and enjoy!

Keep reading for a little interview with Charlotte about her holiday traditions and her inspirations for writing this "The St. Nicholas Day Snow."

1. Can you tell us a little about your cultural and religious background?

I grew up in a Southern family. But we moved around a lot when I was growing up, and I never quite knew, as a kid, how to answer when someone asked where I was from. Although I was born in Mississippi, my earliest memories are from central Illinois and east Tennessee. My tween and teen years were in the southern Great Lakes area. On our trips south to visit family, Mom would go to a local buy cases of food that we couldn’t get where we were living – grits, stone ground corn meal, a particular brand of barbecue sauce, her favorite crab boil seasoning.

Besides Southern food, I also grew up with a Southern understanding of hospitality. My mother welcomed everyone to our home, and treated them like family. When it was time for a meal, she counted how many people were in the house, and that’s how many places she set at the table. It didn’t matter who you were, you were welcome.

My parents were Presbyterian, and I grew up with an understanding of the majesty of God. And I was taught, explicitly, that I can’t really take credit for anything I have or anything I do. Everything good that I have, I received as a gift from a gracious God or the good people he has placed in my life. These ideas became part of me as I grew up.

When, as a young adult, I grew restless in the Presbyterian church, I started looking for something else. The Presbyterian church is restrained and austere. I felt that the love of God called for something richer, something more. And, after some years, I found that in the Orthodox Church. 

2. What made you want to write this book?

There were three reasons, really. First, I had enjoyed my collaboration with R.J. Hughes on my first book, Catherine’s Pascha, more than I could tell you. It was such a joy to see her bring the characters and the story to life. She saw things in the story that I hadn’t even quite realized were there. She drew those things out, and made the story richer and deeper and fuller. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with her again.

Second, I love St. Nicholas. Not the elf who lives at the North Pole, but the bishop who lived in the part of the world which is now called Turkey. St. Nicholas truly lived out the command to love God with all his heart and soul and strength and mind, and to love his neighbor as himself. He was known during his lifetime for his compassion and his kindness. He was an example of the virtue called philoxenia, the love of strangers. All you needed to do to get his help was to ask. I wanted to celebrate St. Nicholas, to honor his life, and to introduce him to children who might never have heard of him.

The third reason might be the most important one. I wanted to get to know Elizabeth better. When I was working with R.J. Hughes on Catherine’s Pascha, we both knew that people with disabilities are severely under-represented in children’s books. We wanted to help close that gap, and to make sure that disabled kids would have the opportunity to see themselves in books. So we decided that Catherine’s best friend, Elizabeth, would have a mobility impairment.

While we worked on the book, we learned a lot about her. We realized that she was an ambulatory wheelchair user, that her favorite color was purple, and that her patron saint was Elizabeth the Dragon Slayer. We knew that she was an only child, and that she preferred fried chicken to hot dogs. We also knew that her parents were not from Orthodox families, but had become Orthodox Christians before she was born.

But I still wanted to get to know her better. And one of the ways that you get to know a character, when you’re an author, is to put them in a story, and see what they do, and what they tell you. And by the time we were done with The Saint Nicholas Day Snow, I loved Elizabeth more than ever. 

3. What were your St. Nicholas Day traditions growing up? Do you follow the same traditions now or have they evolved?

As I mentioned earlier, I was raised Presbyterian, and Presbyterians don’t do saints, not even St. Nicholas. So I didn’t have St. Nicholas when I was growing up. I did have Santa Claus. Santa Claus came on Christmas Eve, and he left oranges, apples,  candies, and nuts in our stockings.

I didn’t start developing St. Nicholas Day traditions until after I became Orthodox. At that time, I already had two children, and they were used to having Santa come on Christmas Eve. At church, though, we celebrated St. Nicholas Vespers every year on the Eve of St. Nicholas. After Vespers, the teens put on a play based on the life of St. Nicholas, and then we had cookies and punch. And the first St. Nicholas Eve after I had joined the church, my godmother gave me a beautiful little ceramic figurine of St. Nicholas. That was the first St. Nicholas in what would become a rather large collection of St. Nicholas ornaments, figurines, and icons that I put out every year during Advent and Christmas.

I didn’t want to try to change from stockings on Christmas Eve to shoes on St. Nicholas Eve, but I did want the kids to be able to celebrate St. Nicholas Day at home as well as at church. So I started giving the kids Christmas picture books on St. Nicholas Day. I wrote that into The Saint Nicholas Day Snow – that’s what Catherine’s family does. And I would send the kids to school with candy canes to share with their class. Candy canes started out ages ago as a traditional St. Nicholas treat. The cane shape represents the bishop’s crozier, and St. Nicholas was, of course, the Bishop of Myra in Lycia.   

4. What are your Christmas traditions?

In the Orthodox Church, we begin Advent on November 15. On the first weekend in Advent, I set out my St. Nicholas collection on the mantel above our fireplace, and I set the Nativity set that my mother made for me in one of our living room windows. (The St. Nicholas figures on the mantel in Catherine’s living room in the book are all based on figures in my collection. If you have a copy of the book, the large St. Nicholas on the right, in green vestments, is one that my mother made for me.)

And I clear the display shelf on our big bookcase in the living room, and fill it with Christmas picture books.

We don’t do any other decorating until the weekend before Christmas. That’s when we put up our tree, and hang a wreath. We’ve always gone to a tree farm to cut a real tree, but we finally got an artificial tree last year. We have a young dog who has a very low tolerance for new things. We thought that an artificial tree would be easier for her to cope with. We may go back to a real tree when she’s older and more laid back. But for now, this works.

Christmas Day starts with church. When we get home, our extended family that lives in the area joins us for a breakfast of sausage biscuits and mimosas and sparkling cider. Then we open presents. Christmas dinner is usually late afternoon.

For the rest of Christmas, we bake cookies, entertain friends, and celebrate the glorious joy of Christmas.

5. If you had to pick just one thing, what is your favorite part of celebrating St. Nicholas Day?

I love picking out Christmas picture books for the little ones in my life. My kids are all grown now, of course. But I have grandchildren, and a young godson. And I love trying to find just the right picture book for each of them every year. 

Purchase your own copy of "The St. Nicholas Day Snow" here.