Even if you have never heard of Saint Nicholas of Asia Minor, you know something about him. Very likely you have been touched by traditions that exist because of him.
During his earthly life (c. 280-343 A.D), he was known for his generosity, often giving in secret.
He was also a man of social justice, standing up for those who were mistreated and helping those who were hungry.
In his part of the world, many respected and loved him. Nicholas of Myra lived a long, full life. He died on December 6, 343.
And that is when things really got started!
Now it is your turn to celebrate Saint Nicholas:
On dark and cozy December nights, gather to read and savor the stories of the man who eventually came to be called Santa Claus.
You will meet an extraordinary boy named Nicholas, born in Turkey in the fourth century. Savor the stories of his adventurous life.
Then learn how his spirit lived on after him, in miracles, legends, and customs in many parts of the world for seventeen centuries.
Celebrating the Spirit of Saint Nicholas
Put on a simple play to introduce others to Saint Nicholas: Midnight Missions
Midnight Missions: a play for St. Nicholas Day
by Anne E. Neuberger
The following is a short, simple play that can be easily produced for home, school, or parish use. It is basically a story-telling tool to introduce St. Nicholas, and can be used for an audience of mixed ages. The only actors needed are a narrator and “St. Nicholas,” and props can be minimal or nonexistent.
Hundreds of years ago, in the country we now call Turkey, there lived a wealthy child named Nicholas. He lived around the first half of the fourth century. He became a priest, and soon a bishop. Bishop Nicholas worked for justice among all people, and the name Nicholas means “victory of the people.”
He helped those who were poor, and those in danger in his lifetime, and he is said to have accomplished even more after his death!
Nicholas appeared to Emperor Constantine of Rome in a dream to convince him to set some prisoners free. Sailors who nearly drowned in a storm were saved by the good bishop who mysteriously landed on board their sinking ship. When a baby was swept into a swift moving river and all efforts to save him failed, the baby appeared the next day, alive and healthy, in a cathedral, under an icon of St. Nicholas.
He is a saint because he lived what the Gospel asks of us. Because some of his acts were done mysteriously, Nicholas has become our saint of surprises. Now his spirit is within each of us whenever we do a good deed in secret. It seems that his spirit is especially strong at this time of year. So strong, I feel as if he is with us now. . . .
Hello! Greetings, everyone! How are you on this Advent day? Waiting for Christmas? Waiting for the birth of the Christ Child?
Well, I have come to tell you a story, and to ask something of importance of you while you wait.
Once, long, long ago, there was a poor man in my country. I heard the man had a terrible problem. You see, he had three daughters who were all old enough to be married. Way back then, it was a custom for a young woman to bring a gift of money to her new husband when they married. This was called a dowry. But as this man had no money to give his daughters, they could not marry. I’m glad to see that this particular custom has died out!
But then, with no dowry and no marriage, his daughters would have to become slaves! Slaves! Can you imagine the worry this good man and his daughters had?
Well, I had money. My parents had left me more than enough. Of course I would share it with this family.
I knew it would be better if the money were given in secret. So, I took a bag of gold and slipped out into the night. I wore a long cloak with a hood so no one could recognize me. I walked quietly through the streets. It was dark. We did not have streetlights then, you know. Still I walked close to the buildings and kept very quiet—I wanted no one to notice me.
When I reached the house, all was dark and silent. I dared not leave a bag of gold on the doorstep for it would surely be stolen. I had no choice but to slip the bag through the window. As soon as I heard that satisfying thud, I hurried off.
I learned that soon after my nighttime travels, the oldest daughter had been married. It was a modest wedding, but her new husband was a good, loving man. One down, two to go.
I didn’t want to wait too long for my next secret mission. After all, the second daughter had to be getting nervous. Again I reached the house without being seen. This time, however, I could see a small light, a candle at a bedside, I supposed, and so I had to wait. The wind was chilly and my feet started to ache, but at last the light was snuffed out. I waited another few moments, then slipped the bag of gold through the window. This time, I didn’t wait to hear it land.
Again, I heard news of the second daughter’s wedding. One more, I told myself. And before long, I found myself hurrying through the darkness to the house, the last bag of gold heavy in my hand. The house was dark, but I approached the window cautiously. After dropping the bag, I turned to leave, but I heard the door open! I hurried as fast as these two feet could carry me. I can tell you that my cape flew behind me!
A shout behind me broke the silence of the night as I rounded a comer. I did not look back, but I could hear that I was being followed by someone faster than I. He came closer, breathing hard, until he grabbed me with such force we both almost tumbled to the ground.
“Please, please,” the father gasped—for that was who it was—as he held on to me.
For a moment we both were silent, panting to catch our breath. Then he looked into my face.
“Nicholas! My neighbor Nicholas! It was you!” he exclaimed.
“Sh!” I shushed him. “Don’t wake the neighborhood!”
“Thank you! Thank you! How can I ever thank you enough!” he gushed in a hoarse whisper, and then to my horror, he sank to his knees, bowing in front of me.
“Stand up! Please!” I urged, trying to sound commanding in a soft voice. I did not want someone bowing to me!
But he stayed there, saying, “My daughters thank you, I thank you!”
“Please get up!” I pleaded.
He did so, and I went on, “Promise me one thing!”
“Anything, anything, Nicholas, that is within my power! I am so grateful to you!’
“Don’t tell anyone that I gave you the money.”
“Not even my daughters?”
“No. No one.”
“If that is what you want, but —”
“That is what I want,” I declared.
So we parted, and the third daughter was married. But the memory of that time stayed with me, and it was not the last time I gave in secret.
Now, I think the father kept his promise, but after my death it seems that someone must have known, for this story has been told about me. I tell it to you now—since it is no longer a secret—because I must ask something of you.
You see, I am a spirit now, a strong spirit, if I must say so myself. To fulfill my earthly work of giving in secret, I need you. Whenever you give in secret, you are filled with my spirit. I call on all of you to be filled with the spirit of surprises and of giving in secret, to carry on my work here. So please become “little Nicholases” and carry on this important task.
And remember two things: keep to the shadows, and have fun!
Tell a St. Nicholas tale using Kamishibai
Kamishibai is a Japanese storytelling technique. Its literal meaning is paper (kami) play or theater (shibai). It is pronounced kay-mee-she-bye
The technique is simple: you need colorful picture cards depicting a story, with the text on the back. How elaborate the illustrations are and how detailed the story is told varies. The storyteller can hold up the cards, but more elaborate kamishibai can include a ‘theatre’ box into which the cards are slotted. Unlike picture books, kamishibai does not have words written on the pictures.
This form of storytelling was very popular during the Depression of the 1930’s and post-war Japan. Kamishibaiya (the storyteller) set up the illustrated boards or small stage-like device on street corners, often traveling by bicycle to do so, and began attracting an audience with his stories. The origins of this method go back to the eighth century, in Buddhist temples. The popularity of the street corner storytelling declined with the advent of television. Today, teachers and librarians use this in Japan, Vietnam, Laos and the United States.
A wonderful picture book introducing children to this form of storytelling:
Kamishibai Manby Allen Say
Mix Asian and European cultures by telling a St. Nicholas story through kamishibai. This will be an especially delightful part of a parish-wide St.Nicholas celebration. It can also be offered after Sunday Mass closest to St Nicholas Day, as it will only take a few minutes to perform, and will introduce listeners to a lesser-known story about St. Nicholas.
Children (or adults) first create the pictures, and then become the kamishibaiya.
You will need:
- 5 sheets of white cardboard or poster board, all the same size approximately 18” x24”
- Pencils, markers, poster paints—whatever medium works best for you; It is important that the finished illustrations are easily seen by a group.
- The text for the story
- Glue stick or tape to attach the text to the back of the story board
- Scissors to cut the story text into sections
There are five scenes, so you will make 5 illustrations. Read the text for each illustration and discuss:
- What is the most important thing that happens in this scene?
- What does the audience need to learn from this picture?
- Who are the people who need to be in this picture?
- What things are needed to be shown (e.g. bags of grain)
- What is in the background (e.g. the sea, ships in the distance)
When the illustrations are completed, attach the section of text to the backs of the appropriate illustrations. Have the storyteller practice. Encourage spontaneity if the storyteller is able to ad lib.
Invite an audience!
Grains of Justice: A St. Nicholas Miracle
Hundreds of years ago, a man named Nicholas was the bishop of a city called Myra. Back then, his country was known as Asia Minor, but today we call it Turkey. This city sat on the edge of the sea. Great ships and huge barges often stopped there.
Bishop Nicholas was a good leader. People often came to him when they had troubles. He did everything he could to help.
One year, there was a famine in the city. The gardens and crops had not grown well, and people were hungry, very, very hungry.
Bishop Nicholas had learned that some barges had arrived. They were filled with grain, a food that could be made into bread.
This grain belonged to the emperor, the ruler who was rich, and never, never hungry. Good Bishop Nicholas was worried about the people who had no food. He went down to the sea, where the grain barges floated.
“My good man!” the bishop called to the captain. “We are hungry! Our crops failed. Please, share some of your grain with us.”
The captain looked surprised. “I’m sorry to hear of your troubles, but the grain is not mine to give,” he explained. “This grain belongs to the emperor, and was carefully weighted before we left. I must deliver all of it.”
“Winter comes soon, and people will starve,” Bishop Nicholas persisted. “Is this justice, that some suffer while others feast?”
“I wish I could help,” said the captain. “I really wish I could! But I will be punished if some of the grain is gone.”
“I ask only for a hundred measures from each ship. If you do as I say, through God’s power, you will not find the wheat measures short at your journey’s end.”
The ship captain stood there, gazing at the bishop. It sounded crazy, but there was something about this man that made the captain trust him.
“I want one hundred measures from each ship, delivered here, right now!” shouted the captain.
The ship captain and his ships left. Bishop Nicholas watched as they eased their way out of the harbor.
When the ship captain’s journey ended, the grain was again measured. He waited, knowing he had done the right thing, but fearing the worst. The sailors too, awaited.
No grain was missing. Each shipment of grain weighed the same as it had when it had arrived in Myra.
The captain and his sailors were astounded.
From then on, everywhere the captain and sailors traveled, they told stories of the wonderful bishop who cared for his people and brought about a miracle.
And in Myra, they say Nicholas divided the grain amongst the people. There was enough for every household for two years!
And, there was enough left over after those two years for a year’s planting!
The people marveled at the miracle of how long the grain lasted. They said prayers of Thanksgiving and enjoyed their bread. And in each home, they wondered, was their good bishop a saint?
As they wondered amongst one another, they also spread the stories about Nicholas and the miraculous grain.
For more St. Nicholas legends, customs, and traditions, crafts, and recipes from around the world, click here!
Tales for Winter Nights
More Stories from St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker
- A Healing Touch
- The Boy Bishop
- Smoke in the Darkness
- The Sweetness of Surprise
A Healing Touch
St. Nicholas was born around the year 280 in the busy port town of Patara, Asia Minor, which is now southeast Turkey. Nicholas’ parents were well-to-do merchants, and known for their generosity. They were Christians, a minor religion in those years of the Roman Empire. Stories tell that even as a baby, Nicholas seemed touched by God. This is a tale of a miracle he performed when he was a young child.
“Only goodness and kindness will follow all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come,” young Nicholas recited, his voice clear and sweet.
“And which psalm is that?” his mother asked.
“Psalm 23,” Nicholas answered promptly.
Nicholas was seven years old, and his parents, Nonna and Theophane, wanted the best education for him. Nonna taught him the Holy Scriptures herself.
A bit later, he was off with his father on the streets of Patara. The smell of the sea filled the air and the sun cast diamonds of light on the great waters. In the distance they could see a ship leaving the harbor.
“Later today, we’ll visit a family whose home burned down. They’re living with relatives, but they have very little. Your mother learned of them yesterday. We’ll take food and clothing and see if they are in need of money also,” Theophane said.
Nicholas nodded. He was used to going with his parents on such errands. Throughout their city, they were known for giving and helping those in need. Nicholas took it for granted.
Theophane noticed a woman walking toward them. He didn’t know her but had seen her before. Her left hand hung limply at her side as she struggled with a heavy bundle with her right.
“We should help her,” Nicholas said.
Before Theophane could reply, the woman hurried up to them and knelt down before them!
Nicholas drew closer to his father. Theophane, greatly troubled by her actions, asked, “Can I help you?”
“Please, let the child touch my hand,” she whispered. With her good arm, she held up the withered, limp hand towards Nicholas. “I heard that he is a special child. Maybe it will help if he would touch it.”
Nicholas looked uncertainly at his father. Theophane drew in a deep breath, taking in the significance of her request. He hesitated. But perhaps this is what God wanted….
“Go ahead, Nicholas,” he said.
The child stretched out his small, smooth hand and touched hers.
She cried out. “Oh! I feel warmth! I feel life in it! Thank you! Thank you! You are indeed a most special child! Thank you!”
The woman hurried down the street, waving her hand like a freedom flag.
Nicholas and Theophane watched her go, and then walked on. Neither spoke.
What, wondered the father, would become of this wondrous child?
The Boy Bishop
When Nicholas was just a teen, both of his parents died. Alone in the world, he decided to join the monastery of his uncle. Before he did so, Nicholas gave away his great wealth. You may know the famous story of Nicholas throwing money into the window of three young women whose family could not afford to have them get married. Most likely this happened about that time. Nicholas sought a quiet life in the monastery, but first he took a trip to the Holy Land. It was on his return that he became a ‘boy bishop’, a term used for many celebrations in centuries to come.
Ships had always been part of Nicholas’ life. As a small boy in Patara, he watched merchant ships gracefully come and go in the harbor.
Now the young man stood aboard one bound also for Patara. After months in the Holy Land, Nicholas was coming home, back to the monastery, to begin his adult life of prayer and solitude.
The trip had been uneventful, but now ominous clouds began to gather on the horizon.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” the captain said, and started shouting orders to the sailors to ready the ship for the worst.
The winds began to rise and soon the little ship was buffeted and thrashed about in a storm. Two days and two nights passed, but who could tell day from night? Waves crashed and rolled over the railings.
The terrified sailors could do very little to save their passengers, their ship or themselves. Filled with fear, Nicholas did what he could do: he prayed. Soon the sailors joined him.
Before dawn of the third day, the storm began to subside.
“We survived!” a bewhiskered sailor said. “And we have that young priest to thank. It was his prayers that saw us through.”
There were murmurs of agreement among the sailors. Nicholas responded only that he would give thanks in the nearest church.
But where had the storm taken them? By dawn they knew: in sight was Myra, the capital city, only twenty miles east of Patara!
The battered ship limped into harbor, but it was a jubilant crew that rode in on her. Nicholas too rejoiced as he saw the shores of Myra coming closer.
Oh, how good it felt to have solid, steady earth beneath his feet once again! Nicholas took a moment just to stand still. Then, though it was very early, he began to walk in search of a church. As he threaded his way through the still-dark streets, he did not know that soon this would become his home. Nor did he know what once he entered the church, his life would be forever changed.
He had been gone for months, so he could not have known that the bishop of Myra had retired. During this time, the other bishops were meeting to select a new leader. So far, they had not agreed on anyone.
But just yesterday, the oldest member had a vision. In a dream, an angel told him how to choose the next bishop! It was an unusual procedure,but then, would an angel bring an ordinary message?
They were to go to the church early, before the first light touched the sky. There they were to wait in the hallway outside the main door to the church. The angel said that whoever entered the door first that morning would be a man worthy of the office.
“His name is Nicholas,” the angel said.
So, as the unsuspecting Nicholas made his way to the church, the bishops, this group of elders, gathered in the shadows of the church hallway. Curious and excited, they waited, and waited and waited.
Still rumpled from his stormy travels. Nicholas bounded up the steps and opened the door. He was greeted by an assembly of expectant faces.
“Good morning,” the oldest bishops said. “Excuse me, but what is your name?”
Nicholas looked about him, startled at this attention, but he answered politely,” I am Nicholas of Patara, your respectful servant.”
“Praise God!” someone whispered.
“Then welcome, Father Nicholas,” the same bishop said. “You have been chosen to be the next bishop of Myra.”
Bishop! Nicholas stared at these people in the dark hallway. They smiled, as if all this made sense. But Nicholas was barely a priest, a young one at that. He could not become a bishop!
Quickly the vision was explained to him.
Still, Nicholas protested, “But I’m too young!”
That didn’t matter. An angel had spoken. There was never any question in the minds of the others.
A ceremony was held. The child of Patara was now bishop of Myra. A quiet life was not to be Nicholas’ fate.
Smoke in the Darkness
Centuries passed since the story of the boy bishop. Far away from Patara, lived the reindeer people of Siberia, family groups who made their living herding reindeer. They had a rich spirituality which included a holy man who traveled by magic reindeer, and entered the snow-covered winter homes through the only opening: the smoke hole in the roof. When Christian missionaries ventured as far north as the Arctic Circle in the seventeenth century, they brought with them stories of Saint Nicholas as part of their teachings of Christ. Often, a people’s tradition and Christianity were combined in ways that fit both religions’ symbolisms.
Lopahin snuggled in the bed, a pile of reindeer hides that lay as close to the fire are safety would allow. It was dark. It was always dark in the wintertime. His mother, father and grandmother sat near the fire with the uncle who was talking quietly so the child could go to sleep.
Outside, the wind howled. Lopahin could hear the hard, biting snow pelting the timber walls. Sleepy but not yet asleep, he watched the orange glow of the fire and the smoke from it curl around, then find its way to the main opening in the house, the smoke hole in the roof. The smoke escaped through the hole to who-knows-where. The child certainly didn’t know. It was so long since he had left this little house, so long since it was light and summer, so long since they lived in a tent and followed the hundreds of reindeer his family herded. He could hardly remember…
Sleep had almost overtaken him when his uncle’s voice rose, just a little.
“I met two men that have come from far away. They’re from warm places, but they have come all this way here to talk with us about our holy man,” his uncle said.
Lopahin did not move, lest they see he was still awake and stop talking altogether. But he listened, for he loved to hear stories of the Holy Man, the shaman.
“I told them of our shaman, how we call him when someone is sick or dying. I said that life was like a tree—the roots are underground, in the world of the dead, and the branches reach the heavens. The trunk in between is the earth. Sometimes, if we need to connect with the heavens, the shaman can help.”
Lopahin loved that story. His grandmother had told it to him,while his father carved notches in the big pole in the center of the house to show Lopahin the way life was like a tree.“The men asked how our shaman is able to travel when it gets so cold. I told them of the shaman’s helpers,” the uncle went on.
The others nodded. In the darkness, Lopahin nodded too, just a little. He knew the helpers. One was a bird which guided the shaman to the upper world. Next was a fish that took him to the underworld. And lastly, the magic reindeer that protected the shaman. This was Lopahin’s favorite. He saw reindeer all the time, hundreds of reindeer; but this one, he knew, was special. He loved to imagine a reindeer that could protect him. Would it look different from the regular reindeer? What magic could it do?
His uncle went on.
“Then the strangers said they’d tell me about their God-man. They call him Jesus. They said there was much to tell us of this Jesus. The God-man has some holy people like our shaman. One holy man is named Nicholas. This Nicholas travels to help people. He has cured people like our shaman.I asked the strangers many more questions. They promised to come in the spring, before we leave for herding, to tell us more about this God-man and his shaman, Nicholas…Lopahin stirred under the comfort of the blankets, watched a wisp of smoke rise through the hole once more and wondered about all he had heard. He hoped he’d hear more in the spring. But right now, spring was a long time away and he was so sleepy…and his bed was so comfortable…
The wind hurled snow against the walls of his safe house. Closing his eyes, Lopahin fell asleep.
The Sweetness of Surprise
St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, always gives in secret. Secretly leaving treats on the eve of St. Nicholas Day is thought to have originated in France during the twelfth century, when a group of religious sisters were inspired to imitate Nicholas’ gift-giving midnight missions.
The oranges gave a deep, fruity smell to the small room. Their warm color was a delightful sight on this dark winter night. Sister Maria Felicia looked over the bowls of nuts that lay waiting too. A stack of cheerfully colorful cloth, cut into squares, brightened the table.
She took a deep breath, holding in the aroma of the oranges, then sighed contentedly. This was a night for surprises!
A few weeks before, there had been talk in her convent of the good St. Nicholas, whose feast day was approaching. The sisters were amused that local school boys were planning a “Boy Bishop” celebration, where the boys played at being bishops because St. Nicholas himself had been very young when appointed bishop. But the sisters’ conversation drifted to other ways Nicholas was remembered. His giving money in secret late at night to those in need was much admired.
That night, Sister Maria Felicia had been unable to sleep. Other children, not so fortunate as the schoolboys, kept coming to mind. She had seen them in the street. The poor children, those with ragged clothing torn by the wind, those with hollow cheeks and eyes that did not sparkle but instead looked out dully onto a cruel world—those she could not forget. Just before she finally fell asleep, she thought of St. Nicholas. And Sister Maria Felicia began to plan.
And now, it was time for that plan!
She heard footsteps and soft voices of the other sisters in the hallway. Soon the room was filled with happy workers.
Conversation and laughter mingled as some sisters sewed the cloth into bags and others stuffed the bags with oranges and nuts. Sister Maria Felicia moved slowly, for her ancient bones permitted no more quick movements. But tonight, tingling with excitement, she almost felt young again.
When the bags were finished, all the sisters pulled on cloaks—everyone Sister Maria Felicia. The others looked at her with a bit of sadness, for this had been her idea.
“If we walk slowly, perhaps you could come?” one young sister asked.
Laying a veined hand on the young nun’s shoulder, Sister Maria Felicia said, “No. Secret giving can be tricky. You may have to run. I’d get caught for sure! Go on now. I’ll hear all about it in the morning.”
She watched them leave, laden with the bright bags that betrayed their contents by the delicious fragrance. The excited chatter quieted, for all must be silent now.
As they disappeared into the darkness, Sister Maria Felicia stood in the doorway for a moment thinking of the children who would be so surprised in the morning. It would have been nice to go.
But she must not linger. She had her own secrets!
As quickly as her legs could carry her, Sister Maria Felicia went to the kitchen and pulled a large tray of small cakes from its hiding place. Oh, the cakes were even more beautiful now than when she had so tiredly finished them in the early hours of this morning!
And now, despite the lack of sleep, despite old bones that wouldn’t hurry, Sister Maria Felicia began her own journey of surprises, leaving little cakes in places she knew each sister would surely discover in the morning.
Happily tired, she tumbled into bed, wondering if St. Nicholas had felt this same mixture of excitement and exhaustion after one of his secret journeys. She was asleep in minutes.
Sister Maria Felicia slept so soundly that she never heard the soft footsteps in the hallway, nor a basket filled with sweets being placed outside her door.