The modern image of a jolly Santa Claus bears little resemblance to the original legend, according to Jene Wagner.
“If you were good, and you said your prayers,” he said, “St. Nicholas blessed you. If not, he was accompanied by Black Peter, who brought a whip.”
That is at least is the story the Klock family brought with them from Germany centuries ago when they immigrated to St. Johnsville and built their fortified house on the bank of the Mohawk River.
Wagner was all dressed up as that retro St. Nicholas on Sunday afternoon at the Historic Fort Klock.
The Klock family departed the home long ago, and their ancestors live in Michigan these days. The nearly 300-year-old stone home/fortress is maintained and shown by a group of locals.
The fort is closed for the winter, but restoration crew members in period attire stoked up three large fires and opened the fort for their annual St. Nicholas Day celebration Sunday. Traditionally, the mainly European holiday was celebrated Dec. 6, and had nothing to do with the baby Jesus. Wagner said they went with Dec. 1 this time so the event would be on a weekend.
Under the centuries-old lintel was fiddle music, cookies and Wagner in his red coat. He looked pretty much like the regular department store Santa — fake white beard, red hat. But even if the casual observer couldn’t see the old-style, less-jolly St. Nick in him, some of the children seemed a little shy about him.
“Hey little one,” Wagner said, reaching for Ben Nightingale with his hooked cane. The 3-year-old darted behind the leg of his mother, Margie.
The air in the place was dense with smoke from three fireplaces and the smell of cinnamon, cloves and apple cider. Over the flames in one fireplace, Wade Wells stirred a steaming cast iron pot — the source of the smell.
“It’s a matter of ingredients,” he grinned, “and proximity to the fire.”
Wells developed his cider-mulling skills over seven years of St. Nicholas Day events and he’s pretty good at it. To the basic cider he adds brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon and a clove skewered orange.
He ladled up some of the stuff into a plastic foam cup.
“This was a really big deal back in the day,” he said. “They had to ship oranges from the Caribbean.”
Getting the orange, he said, was the period equivalent of waiting in line for a Black Friday deal on a flat screen TV. The St. Nicholas Day celebration is the restoration crew’s way of giving kids a look into their ancestors’ type of holiday celebration. In all, roughly 50 kids showed up, along with parents.
Quinnlan Brown, 10, lounged by the fire. He had some cider and talked to his mother. In the other room, some locals played fiddle, harpsichord and a old-style flutelike instrument.
The floor was cold, the air warm and for a moment it seemed very much like those old times Wells described. Then a CSX freight train rumbled past and Quinnlan checked the time on his cellphone.
“I like the fiddle music,” he said, “but I also like Aerosmith.”
He said an ideal Christmas would be some combination of the modern affair laden with presents and the old, simple open fire of history.