Story by James M. Rosenthal
Illustrations by Max Blake
It was December 5th and, as is so often the case in the north, the weather was absolutely dreadful. Freezing cold winds were blowing and great mounds of snow covered the streets and parks of the city.
For the children at St. Mary’s School, it was a special day, a day the twins, Matthew and Megan, were very much looking forward to as Christmas approached. This was a teachers’ training day — the children had no school. A day off school so near to Christmas is really a great thing.
The snow and bitter cold did not keep Matthew and Megan from asking their parents to go Christmas shopping, and most of all, to see Father Christmas at one of the city’s department stores. Only St. Mary’s pupils had the day off so the twins knew they had the chance to spend more time in Santa’s grotto — no competition from those still in school! After a quick breakfast, the twins with their Dad were off to the big shops. Mum, who had to go to work, would meet them later.
Bundled in warm clothes, it was off to the magnificent shopping centre fully decorated for Christmas.
Excitement grew when they saw the big Christmas tree, the snow covered nativity scene, and all the lights and decorations sparkling like jewels in the morning sun. It was so early that the main shops hadn’t yet opened, but this didn’t stop the twins. With their noses pressed to the glass, they waited to greet the security guard and, as the doors flew open, the sound of Christmas carols filled the air. Up the escalator and there it was — Santa’s village.
They were the first to enter and before they knew it Megan and Matthew found themselves seated by a jolly, robust, quite plump man with a full beard, red cap, bright red suit and reddish cheeks. Although they had been before last Christmas, Megan and Matthew were still very excited about their visit to Father Christmas.
With a traditional "ho-ho-ho," Santa invited the twins to tell him what was on their minds and on their Christmas list! Matthew was thrilled to be first and quickly told Santa of all the things he hoped to get this year.
"And have you been good over this past year?" Santa asked boldly.
Megan began first with a list of praiseworthy things she had done, and Matthew followed with similar praise for himself. Father Christmas then asked Megan how she and her brother could be at the shopping centre on a Friday and not at school. Megan gleefully explained.
Santa asked Matthew the name of his school.
"St. Mary’s," he replied.
"Ah," said Santa, "do you know who Saint Mary was?"
Megan quickly replied, "The mother of baby Jesus."
"Very good," said Santa, "but what is a saint?"
"A good person," Matthew cheerfully offered.
"Someone special who loves God," Megan said.
Dad stayed near the entrance to the grotto hoping no crying babies or small children would interrupt this unusual conversation with Father Christmas.
"You are both correct," said Mr. Claus, "but do you know my name?"
"Of course," Matthew said laughing, "Santa Claus."
"I’m sorry Matthew, but that’s not quite correct," Santa hurriedly replied.
Megan interjected, "Father Christmas."
"Well, not exactly," exclaimed the jolly gentleman.
"What is it then?" Megan questioned.
"My real name is Saint Nicholas," said Santa, "You see, I was a saint too."
The twins, a bit stunned, thought and thought. Megan seemed to remember hearing that name but could not remember when or where. She did have a friend at school called Nicholas.
"My home was far away," Santa continued.
"Yes, the North Pole," interrupted Megan.
"No…a place called Turkey."
"Far, far away."
The twins, and even Dad, seemed speechless. This was indeed a very unusual conversation.
Finally, some smaller children began to gather at the door to see Father Christmas, but before the twins turned to leave, St. Nicholas said, "Tonight is St. Nicholas Eve, and tomorrow is my special feast day. Can you come back tomorrow? I have something special in mind for you."
The bearded man gave each a small toy and said, "See you tomorrow!"
They looked at Dad.
"Can we come back?" pleaded the twins.
"Yes, of course", said Dad as he started to explain the unique visit to their puzzled Mum who had arrived from her office.
"Can we go home?" insisted Megan.
"What?" her startled mum asked. "A Friday near Christmas and you want to go home?"
Matthew joined the plea, "can we go home, please?"
"Well ok, but we must do some shopping for Mrs. Vaughan," Mum said.
Mrs. Vaughan was an elderly neighbour unable to leave her home on her own. Dad offered to make a special snack when they got home and they all hurried off into the cold winter air.
"Who was St. Nicholas?" Matthew thought to himself.
Trudging through the snow, they dropped off the packages at Mrs. Vaughan's and then were finally back home.
"Can we use the computer?" the twins asked
"What for?" asked Dad.
"Maybe we can find out about St. Nicholas on the Internet, maybe on a website", Megan said.
"What is this all about?" asked Mum. The twins repeated the story of their incredible conversation with Father Christmas.
After the rather long explanation Mum and Dad helped the twins on the computer.
Into the world of the worldwide web they went with the smell of hot chocolate wafting in from the kitchen.
Mum suggested they type "St. Nicholas" - results: 18,569 entries for St Nicholas.
"Wow," said Matthew, "there is a St. Nicholas." On the screen it read: www.stnicholas.
The search began. Dad found a few sites from Holland that explained that St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, was a bishop!
"A bishop!"' said Matthew, "Like Bishop James who comes to our Church."
"Yes, a bishop, complete with his big stick and pointed hat." Dad said.
They learned that St. Nicholas performed many acts of kindness and gave gifts to people especially children and the poor. He saved people from very bad situations and helped the innocent and neglected people of his time. Hearing this Matthew thought to himself, "I am glad we did the shopping for Mrs. Vaughan."'
The websites told them that St. Nicholas died in 343 AD but his spirit of kindness lives on today. On web page after web page the children learned about the whole tradition of St. Nicholas. They learned how Dutch children left carrots and straw for Nicholas' horse to eat on the evening of December 5th and how on December 6th there were presents from jolly old St. Nick. He was a kindly man who wore a beautiful bishop's robe and carried a big staff, which is what a shepherd uses to gather sheep.
They read more stories about the wonderful things he had done for people: The stories about the three young girls who he rescued from a life of slavery by dropping three bags of gold coins down their chimney because their Father was so poor, and the tale of the three children he saved from death at a country inn impressed them the most.
"But what about St. Nicholas Day?" asked Megan. They found that this day is when the life of St. Nicholas is celebrated in churches and in countries around the world.
"Will our church cerebrate St. Nicholas?" asked Megan.
"Why don't we call the Vicar and ask?" said Dad
St. Mary's Church was always open and had services every day.
"Hello, is there a church service for St. Nicholas Day tomorrow?" Dad asked.
"Yes," said the Vicar, "12 noon, as usual." Dad told the vicar of the twins' new interest.
"Can we go?" asked Matthew.
'We'll see," said Mum, as the hot chocolate and biscuits began to disappear. Their eyes, however, were still glued to the computer.
"Now that we know about St. Nicholas, can we go back to the shopping centre to see him..., Santa..., I mean Father Christmas..., I mean St. Nicholas," shouted Megan.
"Yes, ok," Dad said, "but we better go early. Tomorrow is a Saturday and there will be lots of children at the grotto."
A sleepless night followed for the twins.
The sun was barely up as the twins ate their breakfast on, what they now called, St. Nicholas Day. Snow and cold did not stop the whole family from going to the shopping centre once again. Megan had asked their Mum if they could bring St. Nicholas a gift for his special day. "Of course," Mum had replied and a dozen biscuits were packed for the saint.
Again the twins were first at the grotto, they entered, and saw their bearded friend.
Santa loved the biscuits and thanked the twins. He asked the children to wait a minute and disappeared quietly behind the screen for what seemed a very long time.
To their great surprise and delight, Santa reappeared dressed in a glowing red cape with a gold bishop's hat and staff of shining silver, he was wearing a magnificent jewelled cross. St. Nicholas, now correctly identified as Bishop Nicholas, laughed and gave the twins a big hug. Megan told St. Nicholas about how they read about him on the Internet. He was very pleased.
"Remember" he said, "saints like Mary and Nicholas should inspire others to do God's work in this world and to love people as Jesus would. St. Nicholas loved children and gave gifts because he wanted to share that love with others."
The twins smiled and nodded. They waved goodbye to Bishop Nicholas as he vanished to change back into Santa Claus for the many children waiting to see him. Mum and Dad were as thrilled as the twins.
Next it was off to church as promised, December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. There were only a few people in church but the twins heard the vicar mention St. Nicholas by name in a prayer. The vicar told the children how the church remembers many different saints each day throughout the year during the prayers.
As they were leaving the Deacon, who helps the Vicar in the parish, was at the door to greet the twins.
"The Vicar says you are interested in St. Nicholas," she exclaimed.
"Yes" the twins said briskly.
"Can you come with me for a short walk?" she asked. "I have something to show you."
The whole family followed the Deacon to the city's big cathedral, just down the street from their church. Entering the huge church the twins became very quiet. They all went up to a tiny chapel that was very dark, with the only light coming from some small burning candles. The sign on the door read: St. Nicholas Chapel. Seeing the chapel named for their new friend and saint made them very excited and it was hard to stay still, even in such a quiet place.
The Deacon told them to look up at a beautiful stained glass window over the altar. In the centre of the window there he was, St Nicholas with a child in his arms, bright, shining and beautiful to see. Under the figure of Bishop Nicholas there were three bags of gold and a boat, things that the twins learned were symbols connected with St. Nicholas.
The twins were thrilled.
"St. Nicholas is real. He is our Santa Claus," Megan exclaimed.
The Deacon then told them the story of St. Nicholas and how he saved the lives of some sailors during a great storm at sea. Nicholas was on the ship when the stormy winds began to destroy the boat. The sailors screamed and cried for help. Nicholas prayed. Soon the storm was over and the sailors praised Nicholas for his faith in God to save them.
Megan and Matthew pledged to share their new knowledge about St. Nicholas with their friends at school and at church.
"Can we stop and tell Mrs. Vaughan about St. Nicholas?" Megan asked her Dad. Megan thought St. Nicholas would think this would be a good thing to do.
Mrs. Vaughan was so happy to hear about the new discovery made by the twins. She told the whole family how she, too, knew the truth behind Santa Claus and Father Christmas.
A long and eventful day had come to a close. That night as Megan and Matthew got ready for bed their parents came to say goodnight.
"We know it's not Christmas but we want to give you each a present, after all it is St. Nicholas Day," Dad said as he gave them each three bags of chocolate gold coins.
Megan said quietly, "I wish we could help people like St. Nicholas did".
"We can, it is up to you" Mum said.
Matthew asked, "Maybe there are other people like Mrs. Vaughan we can help with shopping or by visiting them."
"I am sure there are many," said Dad. "We can talk about it tomorrow."
Smiles, hugs and thank you's brought the activities of the day to a close.
Matthew said, "I wish everyone could know the true story of St. Nicholas and be loving like him."
With a smile on his face, Dad said, "I think there is a little bit of St. Nicholas in all of us."
May it be so.