Retired Bethel elementary school teacher Wayne Cooke has been caught up in a huge swell of Christmas Spirit this week and he has sent the Mountain News a remarkable holiday story – it’s actually a tale about a tale.
What follows is Wayne’s “summary from memory” of the classic Christmas story, The Adventures of Nicholas, originally composed by Helen Siitiri.
This summary has been hand-typed recently by Wayne, who has told the story so many times to his students, family and friends that he has it memorized. Fearing that the story had begun to pass from books shelves and the collective appreciation of parents and children, Wayne began transcribing his memorized version in the effort to preserve it for his friends and family, along with the kids and grandkids of his many students at Spanaway Elementary and Parkland Elementary who had grown to love it as much as he had.
In that process, Wayne was surprised to discover that many others had felt has he did – including the original 1960 author, Helen Siiteri, who published a revised edition a few years ago.
Wayne offered his “summary” to the Mountain News on Saturday, December 17, and we have begun our effort to gain copyright permission from the publishers and Ms. Siitiri to reproduce Wayne’s rendition. But, as we all know very well, Christmas is coming, so we do not want to wait too long. Hence, as editor I am invoking the famous executive decision-making edict – it is always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission, and so the Mountain News-WA is proud to bring The Adventures of Nicholas to a new group of readers in a wholly new kind of way – this type of organic storytelling really does show the power of story – as this one has gone around and around and finally comes to you.
Of course, we encourage all those who enjoy this story to purchase a copy of the current edition from the publisher, Trafford Publishing.
And to Helen Siitiri we say “Thank You!” and “Merry Christmas!!!”
First, Wayne, ever the educator, offers an introduction:
THE ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS was first published in 1960 by Helen Siiteri. She had adapted it from a much earlier story, “The Adventures of Santa Claus”, by Julie Lane that had been published in 1932. The Adventures of Nicholas has enjoyed such a renewal of interest that it was again published in a more colorful format in 2006 in Victoria, Canada. The new edition was copyrighted by Helen Siiteri in 2005.
Here is the ordering information for the current 2006 edition so that you can purchase this wonderful story and read it to children year-after-year, until you and they know it by heart and it becomes a family legacy eagerly enjoyed each Christmas season.
6E-2333 Government Street
Victoria, B.C. Canada v8r 4p4
As an elementary school teacher in the Bethel School District near Tacoma, WA, I read it to my classes year-after-year until I could tell the story without the text. To me, the book had an important message distinct from the commercialism of Christmas today.
Many years retired now, I thought the book had “died” and determined to write a short synopsis of the story from my own memory to send to friends and family. Of course, it is a poor substitute for the real book, but I felt I had to do my best to introduce this story to the new generation of relatives and friends.
After I finished writing the story from memory as well as I could, I then discovered to my delight that enough others felt as I did that it must have justified a “new” 2006 printing. The book is still alive! Thank you, Trafford Publishing!
What makes people love this story? Helen Siiteri’s own words help explain:
“The Adventures of Nicholas” is a story such as you might want to tell if you wanted to combine all the warm and happy memories you like best about Christmas…I do not know anyone called Nicholas who actually lived through these adventures, but his story is for all who believe in the spirit of Christmas.”
The Adventures of Nicholas
By Helen Siitiri, as retold by Wayne Cooke
Chapter 1. A TERRIBLE WINTER STORM CHANGES EVERYTHING
Nine year-old Nicholas was decorating a small piece of wood with scraps of colored paper. His baby sister, Kati, stared with wide eyes at the little toy he was trying to make for her.
His father, one of the several fishermen in the small seaside town, looked up from his newspaper to grumble, “I’d rather see him learning to mend nets than fussing with little girl’s toys. Why, when I was his age…”
“Hush,” whispered his mother, “There’s time enough for him to learn to work on the boats when he’s too old to play with his sister.”
“I guess you’re right”, answered his father. “He’s a good child, and he’ll be the better man for learning to be kind to children.” His eyes softened, and he placed his rough hand over his wife’s arm and gave a loving squeeze.
Though they lived in a small house and went without many things because money was short, they were a cheerful family, rich with love and happiness.
This would have continued except for the tragic events brought about by a fierce winter storm just a couple days before the Christmas holiday. It was so unexpected that the small fishing fleet found itself struggling against the waves and the wind to get back to the home harbor safely. Nicholas’ father had a particularly hard time keeping his small boat headed into the waves.
He didn’t know that, back home, Kati had developed a high fever. Mother tried to phone the doctor, but the phone lines had blown down. So, she pulled on a heavy parka, leaned over to give Nicholas a kiss, and said, “Kati is very ill, and I can’t wait any longer for your father to get home. I’m going to the doctor to get some medicine. Take care of Kati until I return.” She went outside, stopped for a moment to look seaward for any sign of the boats, then leaned into the high wind and quickly walked down the snowy street.
Kati stopped crying after awhile and fell asleep. Nicholas sat beside her, dipping a cloth into a bowl of cool water and placing it on her feverish forehead, as he had seen his mother do. Slowly the hours went by. It wasn’t until Kati’s forehead had grown cooler, and cooler, and then cold, that Nicholas allowed himself to fall asleep, worried that his mother hadn’t returned yet.
The neighbors came over and found them in the morning. It was hard to tell Nicholas that his mother had been struck by a falling tree as she was hurrying through the storm. But their grief found no words when they discovered that Kati, also, had died during the night.
One of them, Mrs. Vogel, took Nicholas to her house until his father was able to return with the fishing fleet.
Several hours later, a group of fishermen came to the door, looking exhausted and very unhappy. One of them knelt down to Nicholas, started to speak, then choked up and simply hugged him, instead.
“Where’s my dad!” asked Nicholas, suddenly feeling scared. “Where is he?”
Another man bent over and spoke with tear-filled eyes. “I’m sorry, Nicholas. Your dad’s boat overturned in the huge waves. There was nothing we could do.”
Nicholas was without family or home.
Chapter 2. NICHOLAS’ FIRST HOME-FOR-A-YEAR
On the next day, several of the women met together to decide what to do with Nicholas.
“We would love to have him,” said one woman, “but the fishing was so poor this year that we haven’t enough to take care of ourselves.”
“It’s the same with us,” said another. “Nicholas is a good boy, but we just can’t afford another child.”
Mrs. Vogel looked thoughtful. “Well, we could take him for awhile,” she murmured quietly, “We have that extra room, upstairs.”
A sigh of relief spread around the room until she added, “But I think we all should share in helping Nicholas. Why don’t we agree that each of us will take him in for one year, and then let him change to another family for the next year?”
Mrs. Hanson exclaimed, “That’s a wonderful idea. If we each take him in for a year, he’ll be cared for until he’s old enough to live on his own and it won’t be so hard on any one of our families.”
Mrs. Marsden, who had two teen-age sons, added, “Nicholas is such a helpful and cheerful boy that he’ll be a welcome guest when it’s our turn to have him.”
The good women of the town, having settled on how to care for the unfortunate Nicholas, turned homeward to finish preparing for the Christmas Feast that evening.
So, it was that Nicholas came to his first home-for-a-year on Christmas Eve. The kindly Vogel family did their best to comfort the lonely boy. But the next day, the Christmas day, Nicholas curled up in a corner of his new bedroom and with heartbroken sobs cried for his mother and father and his little sister, Kati.
After awhile the door opened and Otto, who was the same age as Nicholas, entered only to hear the tearful boy say, “What do you want? Go away!”
“My boat’s broken!” cried Otto. “The new boat I got for the Christmas Feast! Can you help me fix it? Please!”
Nicholas wiped the tears from his eyes and answered, “I guess I can try.”
He followed Otto back into the living room where the other two children, Gretchen and Margaret, were laughing as they played together.
In the year that followed, the little boy slowly forgot his grief in the busy, happy life of the Vogel household. Otto and his sisters played with him, quarreled with him, and came to think of him as their very own brother. Nicholas returned their love and was not too young to appreciate their kindness.
All too soon it was time to prepare for a new Christmas, and Nicholas knew he would have to move on to a different home and family. He wondered how he could thank the Vogels for the happy year he had spent with them.
He wanted to give presents, but the only thing he really had was the jackknife his father had given him. He remembered using it with his father’s help to make a little toy for Kati long ago. It didn’t take long to find some wood and colored markers. Soon he was spending any spare time he had to make a little wooden doll for Margaret, another doll for Gretchen, and a boat with a tall mast and a white cloth sail for Otto.
On Christmas morning, as the children sadly said good-bye, Nicholas handed the gifts to his friends and was pleased by the surprised and happy looks on their faces.
Well, I’ll be going now. I’ll make you some next Christmas, too!”
And with this promise, Nicholas started out bravely to join a new family for another year.
Chapter 3. THE RACE FOR THE SLED
In the years that followed, each Christmas Day was a happy one for Nicholas, and for all the children he grew to know like brothers and sisters as he moved from house to house. He did not forget his promise to the Vogels, and each year on Christmas morning he made a special visit to their house, and to each of the other families that he had lived with for a year. At each house he gave a little gift to each of the children.
As he grew into a strong and tall young man of fourteen years, he learned to do many things. Often he helped the men with the boats, mended fishing nets or watched over the smaller children for the busy mothers. The children, especially, loved him and seemed to always be around him. Of course, he went to the small school in the town, along with the other children. And it was in school one snowy December day that Otto told him about the big Christmas cross- country ski race put on by the Squire, who lived in the big house on top of the hill. “It’s a mile long,” Otto said, “and the winner gets the best snow sled you’ve ever seen.”
“What time does it start?” Nicholas asked.
“Nine o’clock exactly,” Otto replied, as he whirled about to toss a snowball at a boy who had just hit him with one. “Are you going to try for it?”
“I don’t know,” replied Nicholas, as he shook his head slowly. He thought of the chores he had to do every morning and after that his visits to each of his former families. He couldn’t possibly finish giving his gifts to them and still make the nine o’clock starting time. But he wanted the chance to win that big beautiful sled!
The other boys became quiet, suddenly realizing what Nicholas was thinking. Otto threw his arm over his friend’s shoulder and led him away from the group. “I’ve got an idea. You know you don’t have to deliver those…”
“Yes, I do,” interrupted Nicholas in a whisper. “The toys are all wrapped and, besides, the children expect them.”
“No, no. I mean you don’t have to deliver them in person, do you? Couldn’t you just leave them in the doorway…early…before they even wake up?”
Nicholas realized that Otto was right, and grinned happily at him. “You are my best friend, Otto, but watch out for that prize sled because I’m going to give you a run for it!”
When the little children arose on Christmas morning, they found a bright sun shining down on the crusted white snow, and also shining on a heap of presents in front of each doorway. Nicholas had been there. Nicholas had kept his promise once more.
Chapter 4. FRIENDS WAIT
Yes, he kept his promise, but it still took too long. Nine o’clock found him poling frantically down the frozen slush of a village street on his skis, hoping that the race would be delayed by the three more minutes it would take to get to the starting line.
No such luck! He heard the starting gun sound, and rounded the last building in time to see a dozen young skiers pushing-off down the first slope. However, the crowd parted for him, and with encouraging shouts helped him get started. Then he noticed something strange about the racers ahead of him. They had all stopped!
As he slid up to the youngsters, quietly waiting in a straight line, his puzzled expression made the others laugh. “Come on, Nicholas,” shouted little JoEllen. “We wanted them to wait for you, but they said we had to go by the rules. You knew we’d wait for you, though, didn’t you?”
“From now on, see who waits for you!” yelled Otto. “One, two, three, GO!”
Nicholas was speechless. His friends had waited for him, even after the race started. They liked him even though he had to be passed around from family to family! He remembered the painful yearnings for his own family and the feeling he often had of not being quite as good as the other children. Now he realized with a sudden burst of happiness that each of them felt all the love that brothers and sisters can have for him. His skis felt as light as his heart as he slushed along the trail, his strong legs overtaking one friend and then another. Finally, on the last steep hill, he was in the lead.
“That new sled could be loaded up with twice the gifts,” he thought to himself. “I’m going to make next Christmas the best ever for my friends.” And he edged his skis into the slope, side-stepping up until he reached the top and the last level quarter-mile to the finish line. Soon he heard the excited spectators shouting him on until he swished past the finish, followed soon by Otto and two or three of the others. He had won!
The shiny new sled was presented to him in a brief ceremony. Even better, however, was seeing the boys and girls who had lost the race happily pulling Nicholas home on his sled. The littlest children hopped on behind and climbed lovingly all over their familiar friend. And each mother and father smiled at him with pride, as though it had been their own son who had won. For some, he had been their son-for-a-year.
And now it was time to move again. Nicholas, in all the happy excitement, had almost forgotten that his next home was to be with Bertram Marsden, the furniture-maker.
“Mad Marsden” was what the children called him, because he was so unfriendly and short-tempered since his wife had died three years earlier. Soon after that, his two sons also left, never to return. Marsden needed help now, so Nicholas knew that he would be wanted for the work he could do.
Chapter 5. A WOODCARVER’S APPRENTICE
With a heavy heart, he packed up his few clothes and belongings and trudged to the outskirts of town where the Marsden workshop and cottage were located. The old man greeted him courteously enough at the door.
“That’s a pretty sled. You won’t have much time to play in the snow here, though. Put it in the storehouse for now”. Then he added gruffly, “I’m going to make a good woodcarver out of you. No time for toys.”
Nicholas still enjoyed seeing his friends at the small school where he was an honor student, but after school and weekends he had to work as an apprentice under Marsden’s direction. He would work for hours, bent over the bench beside the old man, going over and over a piece of wood until it fit perfectly. Gradually he was introduced to the various machines and tools, learning to use their sharp edges with increasing skill.
He grew used to this difficult work in time, for he was young and strong. But he felt he could never get used to the dreadful loneliness of the place. His friends, the children, gradually gave up trying to see him after they had been chased away, time after time, by the cross old man. Mr. Marsden seldom spoke, except to give instructions about the work or to scold him angrily for some mistake. Nicholas was sad and lonely, and longed to be back in a friendly house surrounded by laughing children.
One morning, toward the end of winter, Mr. Marsden woke up and looked around in surprise. Nicholas, waking early, had swept and scrubbed the dirty floors. Then he had taken down the dingy curtains untouched since Mrs. Marsden died, and while they were soaking he had scoured the pots and pans. The kitchen table was set neatly with a tasty breakfast, and Nicholas, seeing that his master was awake, was already pouring a cup of coffee. “Breakfast is ready!” he called out and a wide smile on Marsden’s face rewarded his words. From then on the cottage began to look less like the workshop and more like a home. Marsden was unexpectedly growing to admire his young apprentice, who seemed to learn quickly both in the shop and at school, where he had many friends.
One evening Marsden looked up from the book he was reading to see that Nicholas was still working out in the shop. “Hey, Nick,” he called out. “I’m not such a hard boss that I make you work nights, too. What are you doing?”
Nicholas came in quickly. “It’s just a piece of wood from the scrap barrel. I was trying to make a little car. It’s a…a toy.” He said the last words fearfully, expecting an angry response.
But Marsden simply said, “I know. You’ve been making toys every Christmas for the children. Here, let me see that.” And taking a sharp knife from the shop, he skillfully finished the toy to perfection. Then, instead of handing it back to Nicholas, he held it in his hands with a sad expression on his worn and wrinkled face.
“It’s been many years since I made toys,” he murmured. “But I made plenty of them, back when they were little.”
“When who were little?” Nicholas asked, puzzled.
Marsden’s eyes grew fierce and angry. “My sons,” he roared, “My sons! Both of them! When they were your age, they left me. Ran away to sea. Left me to grow old all alone.” The old man’s eyes filled with tears and he buried his face in his hands.
Nicholas stepped over and placed his strong hands on the bent old shoulders. “I won’t leave you,” he whispered. “I won’t leave.”
Chapter 6. THEY MAKE TOYS FOR THE NEXT CHRISTMAS
Marsden lifted his head. “You’re a good lad, Nick. I think I’d like to help you with those toys you want to make. We’ll work together on them in the evenings. Okay, Nick? And you won’t ever leave me alone, will you, lad?”
The boy answered quietly, “No, Mr. Marsden. I’ll stay with you.”
Every evening the two heads bent over the workbench. With help from the master woodworker, the toys were better and more beautiful than they had ever been. The doll’s faces were more lifelike, tinted with the soft colors used on special orders. The boats and cars and sleighs were brightly painted, and the doll furniture was stained just like real furniture. Nicholas was thrilled that this year he would be able to give his friends, the children, the best Christmas gifts ever.
The night before Christmas everything was finished. In a large box was a toy for each child in the village, all ready to be loaded onto the prize sled. Yet, Nicholas and the old man were still working in the shop, trying to finish a chest that had been ordered by a wealthy woman in a town ten miles away. It had taken longer than expected and now they were late.
The chest had to be finished and delivered on Christmas Day. It was a wedding present and the Christmas Feast would also celebrate the wedding. They would have to use a rented horse and freight-sleigh and drive over the snow-covered road with the chest early Christmas morning…the very time he had planned to deliver the children’s gifts.
“I’m sorry, Nicholas,” said old Marsden. “I’d go myself, but I’m not as strong as I used to be. I don’t think I could make the ten miles over, several hours to rest the horse, and ten miles back. With the snow not crusted, it will be hard going.”
“If only she didn’t want the chest on Christmas morning,” sighed Nicholas.
“Well,” answered Marsden, “we did promise it and it has to be delivered. Now the toys weren’t promised….”
“No, but I’ve always given them,” interrupted Nicholas in frustration.
“Wait, son. I was just going to say that they weren’t promised for Christmas Day. Now you know it’s past ten o’clock and the little children have probably already gone to bed. If we hurry, couldn’t…”
“Of course,” cried Nicholas. “I can deliver them tonight! That’s a wonderful idea!”
While Nicholas rushed to get the year-old sled out of the storage, Marsden got the gifts ready to pack and in a short time the sled was loaded. Nicholas put on gloves and parka and pulled it down the path toward the first house.
A bright winter moon shone down on the village, making the snow glisten on rooftops and around each doorway. Not a soul stirred in the streets except one teen-age boy, quietly leaving a pile of little toys in every place he stopped until there was nothing left on the sled.
It was Christmas Eve, and a tired Nicholas had once more kept his promise to the children of the village.
Chapter 7. THE FIRST CHRISTMAS STOCKING
The old woodcarver cheerfully taught Nicholas all that he knew of his difficult craft. The years went by busily and happily, and for Bertram Marsden they were the happiest of his life. When old age finally overcame him and he passed away peacefully in his sleep, the woodcarver gratefully left his cottage, his tools, and his thriving business to Nicholas, whom he had grown to love as his own son.
The excellent craftsmanship of Nicholas brought in a very good income. As Nicholas grew older, he loved to hear the sound of children’s voices and was a trusted friend to both children and parents. In spite of his work, he always was willing to listen to the children and sometimes join in their fun. He was always there when problems arose, too, and his wise advice was respected by the parents and all the people in the town.
Timmie was one little boy he didn’t see very often, though. Timmie’s dad had hurt his back badly and was confined to a chair. Timmie had to help at home. He looked forward to the daily task of pulling his sled out into the woods and gathering wood for the fire so they could keep warm. They barely had enough for food, though. Nicholas worried about them.
As Christmas approached, Timmie asked his mom for a cloth bag, explaining that Nicholas, the woodcarver, puts toys in it on Christmas morning. A bag hanging on the front door for each child showed him how many children lived there. He wouldn’t forget anyone this way.
She answered. “Honey, we can’t buy things in the amounts that come in cloth bags. No, we don’t have any, and I think that’s just a silly story anyway.”
Timmie turned back to the pile of socks he had been asked to match and put away. Suddenly he held up one of his dad’s socks and exclaimed, “Mom, this looks like a cloth sack. Couldn’t I hang this up? Please, Mom, please!!”
So it was that Nicholas found a stocking hung on their door. And so it was that the following morning Timmie found that stocking stuffed to the top. As he, in front of his astonished parents, pulled out little toys and candies one after another until it was empty except for something in the very toe. Timmie reached to the bottom and pulled out…a roll of money! His dad almost stood up as they counted it and found enough to keep them for the rest of the year. His mom cried in relief and joy.
Chapter 8. A NEW RED SUIT
Nicholas was now using a horse – both to pull the rebuilt sled and for trips out of town. Today, he was visiting a client to finalize plans for a project. He pulled on his old brown suit with the missing button, and mounted his horse. But as he swung his leg up over the saddle, Nicholas heard something rip. Oh, no! But there was no time to change and he went on his way, having, with some embarrassment, to explain the mishap to his customer. “I guess I’d better order a new suit”, Nicholas said, sheepishly. “I surely can afford to buy a good warm leather suit that will look good and never wear out.”
The very next day he rode over to the home of the widow Watson, a seamstress, and explained what he wanted. She was excited and told Nicholas that she knew where she could get just the right leather and red dye. “And wouldn’t some rabbit fur around the edges and collar look beautiful with red?” she added.
“Well, I wasn’t thinking of red, exactly,” he replied slowly, “but maybe that would be nice. Hmm-m, the more I think about it, the better I like it. In fact, yes, yes! Let’s do it! A red leather suit with white trim! After you get the leather, I’ll return for you to do the measuring. And I’ll pay you right now for it! I can hardly wait!!” He put money on her table.
“Oh!” she said, “That’s too much. Here, let me give half of it back.”
“No, no!” answered Nicholas, turning to the door. “You’ve had a rough time since your husband passed away, and you deserve this for your hard work.”
For the next couple months, Nicholas had more work than he could handle. He worked late and still was behind in his orders. There was no chance to go to Mrs. Watson for a fitting. Meanwhile, she gave up on his coming and decided to go ahead with it from memory and her years of experience. He was a tall, strong, fine big man in her eyes, and the “big” part guided her scissors a bit too much.
When Nicholas finally caught up with his work enough to ride out to the Watson home, he was thrilled to see his new suit all finished. But when he tried it on, it was loose and baggy.
“Oh, I should never have tried to do it from memory”, she exclaimed. “I’ll have to cut it and sew it over again”. She reached for the measuring tape so she could get it right this time. But Nicholas turned away with a happy grin and a twinkle in his eye.
“This is perfect”, he said. “Sure it’s a bit loose, but that’s because I’m too thin. I spend too much time at the workbench and forget to eat. I will just have to pay attention to my meals from now on. Yes, it’s perfect, and I thank you!”
From that time on he did pay more attention to meals and, as happens to all of us sometimes, the weight came on too easily and by the next Christmas, it fit perfectly!
Chapter 9. THE ESTATE SALE
That next Christmas, he delighted in wearing his new suit as he filled the stockings outside each door. But his horse didn’t do as well. She had pulled that sled, now remodeled and enlarged to carry more gifts, each Christmas for many years. She limped badly and barely made it home. “No more work for you, my good friend,” said Nicholas. “You’ve earned a rest and I’m going to have to look for a replacement.”
The following summer, Otto, his old boyhood friend, had stopped by to visit and share a cup of coffee. He told Nicholas that the Squire, now old and forgetful, had been suffering from health problems and the doctors advised him to move south to a warmer climate. The Squire had his house up for sale and was selling off his animals and furniture. He was planning an estate sale for next weekend.
“I don’t need any furniture”, said Nicholas. “I can make my own.”
“That’s true, of course,” answered Otto, scratching his gray beard, “but you do need a new horse, and the Squire has two horses and the reindeer for sale.”
“You’re right! Maybe I will walk up there after all”, answered Nicholas.
The summer sun was bright as Nicholas made his way through the crowd at the estate sale, with much stopping to greet people on the way. Finally he reached the horses and the people watched to see which one he would pick. But he didn’t stop there.
He walked past the horses and up to the barn with the reindeer. A young reindeer clattered his hooves on the gate, wanting Nicholas’ attention. He excitedly licked Nicholas’ hand as Nicholas petted him, and stomped angrily when his visitor moved on to one of the larger animals, admiring its strong legs. Nicholas stayed for awhile, getting acquainted with the animal, and then walked over to the big porch where the Squire sat at a table. “I think I’d like to buy that reindeer I was just looking at”, he said.
“No, no”, answered the Squire. “You can’t buy just one. That set of eight goes together or not at all. Why, Donder and Blitzen would go stark raving mad if they were separated from any of their children.”
Disappointed, Nicholas turned away. “No, I’m afraid I need only one. Maybe I’ll go look at one of your horses, though.”
Just as he said that, a loud banging came from the direction of the barn and the small reindeer Nicholas had first looked at jumped out and streaked toward the crowd in the driveway, sending them scattering.
“Stop him! Stop him!” shouted the Squire, struggling to his feet. “That’s Vixen! He might hurt someone! Stop him! He’s broken out of his stall”.
Some in the crowd tried to dodge away while others bravely tackled the animal, only to see it easily shake free, then stand and look at them as though to say, “Catch me if you can!” The pandemonium and the antics of the young animal, who made no attempt to run away but just wanted to play with them, sent Nicholas into fits of laughter.
“I haven’t laughed so much in years”, he said when he could catch his breath.
“I don’t know what the others are like, but I must have him!”
Chapter 10. A REINDEER BARN AND A MYSTERIOUS SHED
And so it was that Nicholas, no doubt imprudently, became the owner of eight reindeer and now wondered what he would do with them and how he could make them a barn to stay in. The Squire agreed to keep the animals while Nicholas worked frantically building a barn and stalls large enough to hold them. When that was done, and enough hay and feed put into storage, Nicholas led them down to his new barn and was not a little surprised to see how close they stayed to him and how well they behaved. Even little Vixen pranced around close to Nicholas, and to his parents, Donder and Blitzen.
Then, the villagers noticed something strange. Nicholas started building another large shed near the barn. When visitors asked him what that was for, he wouldn’t tell them. “You’ll find out soon enough”, he would say with a mysterious smile.
Now Nicholas was a man who was open and truthful with everyone, so his behavior sparked a good deal of curiosity. Was he getting more animals?
When the shed was finished, he put a lock on the large doors. Then people would hear banging and sawing from inside that shed. After many weeks, that noise ended, but Nicholas could still be seen going in and out with paint cans. He still was just as secretive about what he was doing, though, and as fall approached it appeared he had finished whatever he was doing and everyone began to forget the shed.
Christmas night that year was cold and clear. The sound of sleigh bells aroused people. They looked out their windows to see a large, beautifully shaped sleigh filled with Christmas gifts and pulled easily by a team of eight reindeer. Nicholas, dressed in red, was sitting in the seat.
He waved to them when he finished putting gifts in the stockings hung outside and called out, “Merry Christmas”, as the reindeer quickly pulled him away to the next house.
Where did that big sleigh come from? Then they remembered the hammering and sawing inside that special, mysterious, locked shed. “Bless his heart”, they thought. Nicholas had revealed his secret at last, and it was in a way, another gift to the children of the village. His reindeer purchase may have been imprudent, but he had turned it into a way to make his annual Christmas deliveries faster and better than ever. The next morning, the news spread rapidly. The mystery was solved. Nicholas had done it again.
Chapter 11. HOLLY IS SAVED BY A REINDEER
Holly was a sickly young girl who didn’t feel comfortable around the boisterous children of the village. Her greatest joy was growing plants in a small garden outside their back door. Nicholas became a friend to her, calming her fears and listening to her talk. She would bring him flowers often, as an excuse to talk with him.
It was fall now, though, and the flowers were gone, wilted and brown. She saw some older boys returning from the woods with some bright green shiny leaves with red berries.
“Where did you get those?” she asked.
They told her that it grew in an opening rather far into the forest, farther than she would want to go. Holly had been warned by her parents about the dangers of the forest, but wanted those leaves to give to Nicholas so badly that she grabbed her warm coat and ran out in the direction the boys had pointed. The way led past Nicholas’ workshop and he looked up briefly to see a child disappear into the woods, then returned to his work.
Holly did find that bush and gathered an armful of the shiny, prickly leaves before she turned and started back home. Half way there, it started snowing, the first snow of the season. She kept going, but soon found the path getting covered with white. It was difficult to follow. Suddenly she realized with fear that she might be lost.
Meanwhile, Holly’s parents returned home and found her missing. Their fears grew as they questioned neighbors and found no one had seen her. They knew she sometimes visited Nicholas, so they almost ran in the falling snow to his shop. When they told him, he remembered that child he had seen and realized that Holly might be in mortal danger. He quickly pulled on his coat, hitched the smallest reindeer to the small sled, and swiftly set off.
Holly was scared, uncertain of the way home. The snow was falling so fast now that she saw only white ahead of her. Out of that whiteness a brown animal suddenly materialized, coming right at her. She fainted and fell to the ground, unaware that a reindeer was licking her cold cheek. She woke up in her mother’s arms, in Nicholas’ warm home, next to Nicholas and her father. The three were looking at her anxiously. She saw the pile of green holly nearby on the table.
“Whatever made you go into the woods like that, Holly?” asked her father. Holly told them about the boys and about wanting to bring Nicholas something fresh and green. Finally they understood.
Nicholas had tears in his eyes. “Dear child, he said. What a brave, brave thing to do for me. Please don’t ever do that again. But what is the name of this wonderful plant with the red berries?”
“I don’t know”, answered Holly, “but it’s pretty. I wanted to bring it to you.”
“It is brave, just like you,” said Nicholas, “to be growing so green in the winter.
I think we should name it Holly, after you, because you are just as brave.”
Chapter 12. AN UNFRIENDLY NEWCOMER
The Squire’s big house on the hill sat empty for years. Finally, the “for sale” sign was removed, and a crew was hired, apparently by the new owner, to clean it up inside and out. A week or so later, the train stopped and the small crowd that always gathered to welcome newcomers saw a small old man with an unfriendly expression on his face step onto the platform followed by a thin, small girl. Some of the people tried to greet them, but got only a scowl for their efforts. The pair set off for the house without a “hello” or even a smile.
The next day, neighbors were surprised to look up and see the windows being boarded up. The girl was brought to school, but when the old man found that it would cost a little, he grumbled that he would teach her himself. Once in awhile the girl could be seen outside in the yard, and some of the children learned from her that her name was Kati and that her parents had died, leaving her in the custody of her uncle.
After that, she was seldom seen, being allowed outside in the large fenced and padlocked back yard only an hour or so a day. They almost never saw the old man, except sometimes at the store to buy groceries.
As Christmas approached, some of the children asked Nicholas how he would get gifts to Kati, since obviously she wouldn’t be allowed to put a stocking on the front door.
He, too, had been wondering about it. “You know, I had a little sister once named Kati”, he revealed to the children, and the memory brought a sad look to his face.
As the days went on, he mused more and more about Kati. One day a thought came to him that he tried to push away, but couldn’t. There was one way to get into that big house, but it wasn’t easy and he knew it was neither sensible nor safe. Now few people suspected that the careful, meticulous woodcarver had an adventurous spirit, especially when it came to a little girl that reminded him so much of his sister and needed so much help.
He couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. Finally he said to himself, “By golly, I’m going to try it! I may get stuck, but, for Kati, I’ve got to try.”
Chapter 13. DOWN A CHIMNEY INTO DANGER
That Christmas, after he had stopped at every other house, he removed the sleigh bells and had the reindeer pull quietly up to the big house on the hill. Though his beard was gray, he was still strong and agile, and he first carefully climbed onto the porch roof.
Now came the dangerous part. He took out a pocketknife and carefully chipped steps into the crusted ice, slowly making his way up the main roof to the large chimney. Finally he was able to look down into it. “Just as I thought”, he said to himself. “The old miser lets the fire go out at night to save money”.
He took out the bag of toys he had prepared for Kati and lowered it with a cord, then climbed in, himself, and used the opposing pressure of hands and feet to make his way down. He ducked under the mantle and pulled the soot-covered bag out. He looked around at the ornate living room for a place to put a huge stocking filled with toys and candies. A heavy candle-holder on the mantle seemed to be perfect and he pinned down the top end of the stocking with it, then made a small pile of the rest of the gifts underneath. As he finished, he heard a noise and whirled around to find the old man glaring at him.
“Aha,” the man said, “you came to steal my money! I’ll show you what I do to thieves.”
He quickly grabbed a heavy fire poker and lunged at Nicholas, who must have looked like a thief, covered with dirt as he was. Nicholas dived over a table, avoiding the poker and putting the table between them.
“No, man, no, I’m not a thief”, yelled Nicholas quickly. “Look over at the fireplace. Those are gifts for Kati. I give gifts to all the children. Look!”
The old miser looked quickly, and then looked again in disbelief. “You…give gifts to children?” he stammered.
“Yes, I do”, answered Nicholas. “Every child gets gifts from me every Christmas. I do it because I love children. I had to find a way to get these gifts to Kati. They are only for her and don’t you dare touch them, either!”
“I can’t believe it”, said the old man with a look of suspicion.
“That’s because all you care about is your money”, answered Nicholas, now sure of his ground. “Do you ever look into Kati’s eyes? Did you ever hold her soft hands? Do you ever really listen to her? Do you ever try to make her happy? Or do you only care about your cold money. I feel sorry for you, old man. Yes, I’m sorry for you!”
“And now”, Nicholas finished with an indignant glare, “kindly let me out the front door because I certainly don’t intend to go back up that chimney!”
The old man dropped the poker and hurried to let Nicholas out. As the big door opened, he saw another amazing sight. Quietly waiting in front of the house was a beautiful large sleigh and a team of reindeer. It was more than enough proof that his strange visitor was no thief. As the door closed, he just stood for awhile, trying to understand what had happened.
The very next day, villagers were surprised to learn that the old man had torn the boards off the windows. They were even more surprised a few days later when they saw him and his niece walking down to the school, hand in hand, to enroll Kati. Both were smiling. Two lives had been changed forever. They wondered how it had happened.
Chapter 14. THE GYPSY BAND
Behind that seaside fishing village was a large expanse of forest, the forest in which Holly almost got lost. Much further in, the forest began to slope upward more and more steeply until it became jagged peaks in which patches of snow stayed all summer. Trails crossed the mountains, and then descended again to a flat plateau with towns and farms. In winter, those trails were covered and it was impossible to cross. That was why the children living in the fishing village got the surprise of their lives.
Years had passed, and Nicholas’ beard had become as white as snow. He had slowed down somewhat, especially since catalogs had begun arriving allowing people to order mass-produced furniture. The aches in his bones gave him another reason to rest more. He enjoyed watching the children play. The area at the edge of the forest behind his shop was perfect for Hide and Seek. One day, several of the children came running out of the forest as though chased by a bear and the concerned Nicholas opened his door quickly to let them in. They looked scared.
“What’s wrong? What happened? You’re safe now. Sit down and tell me what happened.”
“I thought it was Peter behind the tree”, sobbed a girl. “But it wasn’t. It was a strange man wearing rings in his ears and funny clothes!”
One of the older boys added, “I saw a big covered wagon, and there were other people there, too. They all looked so different. Do you know who they are?”
The youngest girl said, “They’re bad people. Will they try to hurt us, Nicholas?”
Nicholas, to their surprise, laughed. “No, no, I think I know who they are and, no, I don’t think they are bad and I don’t think they will hurt you.”
“But who are they, then,” insisted the boy.
“I think they are Gypsies”, Nicholas answered. “They live on the other side of the mountains. They have their own customs and ways of doing things. They just don’t like to live in houses like we do. They build things to sell and sometimes they cross over the mountains to sell things in the villages up and down the coast.
“But how can they get back home now?” asked the oldest boy. “It’s already started snowing. They’ll never make it back!”
“You’re exactly right,” said Nicholas, thoughtfully stroking his beard. “I wonder if something delayed them and now they are stuck for the winter on our side of the mountains. Maybe they are in trouble. Maybe they need some help.”
Chapter 15. THE FIRST CHRISTMAS TREES
That turned out to be the case. Two of the wheels had broken and had taken a long time to rebuild. Then, an illness required staying in a town where medicine was available. Later, an elder died suddenly, requiring arrangements for a proper ceremony and burial. It all had taken time and by the time they had made it to where they would have turned into the mountain pass, the first snows had fallen. Finally, they had settled in a sheltered part of the forest near the village, resigned to staying the winter.
Nicholas and several of the villagers walked out to meet with them and ask what they needed. They did have some stores of food, but were delighted to be offered more. They needed little else, as they were used to being self-sufficient. As the weeks passed, the Gypsy children became friends with the village children and they played together and talked together, learning much from each other. The adults, too, became acquainted and enjoyed the thrill of visiting each other.
As Christmas drew near, a few of the children began asking Nicholas how he could give gifts to them. “They have no chimneys and no doors,” observed one. They don’t even wear stockings like we do.”
“Oh, don’t you worry,” answered Nicholas. “I promise you I’ll figure out something.” And of course he did have a plan already worked out in his wise old head.
On Christmas night, after all the other gifts were delivered, his reindeer team pulled him up a short distance from the Gypsy encampment. Grimm, the Gypsy leader, was waiting. Quickly, the two men took a box of small candles from the sleigh and began tying candles to the branches of several small fir trees. When they had finished, there was a tree for each Gypsy family, under which a pile of gifts were placed. Then Grimm said, “Okay, I’ll start lighting the candles.”
“Not yet, not yet”, exclaimed Nicholas. “Wait until I’m out of sight. The children must never see me!” And he quickly climbed onto the seat of the sleigh and soon disappeared into the night.
Then Grimm lit each candle so that the forest grove was a blaze of warm light when the Gypsy families were awakened. With a little help from Grimm, each family found its tree and the children were soon happily opening gifts. Nicholas had kept his promise.
Chapter 16. THE LAST SLEIGH RIDE FOR NICHOLAS
Nicholas’ legs ached more and more as he grew older. Kati, a grown woman, had inherited the big house from her uncle and was now married with children of her own. She often visited Nicholas with her children, bringing him meals and helping tidy up his house. He no longer worked much in the workshop, mostly just making toys for the children. Holly, too, was a good friend, and sometimes the two women would go together to make sure Nicholas was well taken care of and any needs were supplied. They worried about him and wondered how much longer he could carry out the yearly Christmas trip so much anticipated by the children.
The next Christmas was cold and cloudy. Nicholas had loaded the gifts and set out as usual, excited to once again be making his rounds. At each house he felt more and more tired, though. It started to get more difficult just climbing up onto the seat. The reindeer did their best. Finally, he made it to the last house. There, he found a cup of hot chocolate waiting on the mantel with a note. He gratefully drank it, sat down in a chair to rest for a minute…and fell asleep!
Hours later, the father came down the stairs and was surprised to find Nicholas still there. He gently woke him up.
“Oh, no, I haven’t even finished.” Nicholas said with dismay as he opened his eyes. The father insisted that he go right out to the patiently waiting reindeer and go home to rest, promising to finish putting the presents under the tree.
A minute later, young Allen came down the stairs, having heard the noise. “Father, you’re putting the presents under the tree. I thought it was Nicholas.” He looked ready to cry.
“It is Nicholas,” his father replied. “It’s always Nicholas. Sometimes he needs a little help, but it is always Nicholas that brings the Christmas toys.”
Late that morning Holly came, as she always did, to Nicholas’ home to decorate it with the shiny green plant with red berries named for her so long before. Of course, she would always find him sleeping and would make a good breakfast for him and then wake him up. He enjoyed the breakfast-in-bed and visiting with her. This time, when she went in to wake him up, she found him still dressed in his red suit. She touched his cheek and said, “Merry Christmas, Nicholas, time for…” She never finished as she realized he had passed away. Holly, in tears, ran outside and up to the other houses, spreading the word. Soon the bells of the small church were tolling. The entire village attended the funeral and mourned the passing of the man they loved, and the man who had so loved them.
Chapter 16. “NICHOLAS” RETURNS
After the funeral, a number of them stood talking, reluctant to leave.
“What will we do next Christmas?” asked a mother, voicing the thought on everyone’s mind.
“Well, it’s a sad, sad, day, but the children have to learn to face reality. There’ll be no more presents at Christmas.” said one father.
“Yes, but that wouldn’t really be fair to Nicholas,” said another.
They debated for some time, trying to guess what Nicholas would have wanted and what to do to plan ahead for the next Christmas without Nicholas.
Kati took the aging reindeer up to the barns at the big house. Eventually the workshop and house were sold to a grateful young cabinet-maker just starting out.
The next Christmas arrived. After the Christmas feast, the children went to bed, with thoughts of Nicholas in their heads. The night passed.
Christmas morning was clear and sunny. Suddenly a boy ran out of his house to his friend’s house yelling: “Nicholas came! Nicholas came again! They quickly learned that every child in the village had awakened to find a pile of presents under a tree.
With a little help, Nicholas had come again, and again.
Thank-you, Wayne! Lovely story.
Isn’t it, though –
Now I want to pass this story on to all of the Ecosystem Explorers. Thanks! CVW
Please do. What the heck – if I’m in deep doo-doo over copyright infringement, what’s the diff betwen a couple thousand and couple hundred – let’s spread the joy of Christmas all around!
Besides, I can always make Helen and Trafford a deal – they can use all my Christmas stories in exchange for this one. Did I ever tell you the time I saw a woman pinch Santa Claus’ tushie down at Capitol Mall????
I am glad that Wayne Cooke is still around, and thinking about sharing old tales! Merry Christmas, each and all.
What a great story. I am writing this through tears. I will definitely share this with my family. Thank you so much. This is what Christmas is all about.