Chapter 1 - The Storm
Long, long ago, in a tiny village on the shores of the Baltic sea, a fisherman and his wife lived in a simple stone cottage with their two children, Nicholas a boy of five and his baby sister Kathy.
One afternoon, as Nicholas sat by the window carving a small piece of driftwood, he watched the fury of the storm clouds building. In the distance he could hear the roar of the waves breaking on the shore and his thoughts were for his father who must be being tossed about in his frail fishing boat. It was not long before Nicholas could no longer hear the waves above the rattle of wild hailstones hammering at the window panes. It was growing dark as Nicholas asked in a concerned voice, “Mother, do you think father will be safe out there?” He received no answer. His mother was too busy looking after baby Kathy who was lying in her cot tossing feverishly. Eventually she rose from beside the cot and with a worried look on her face confided in Nicholas.
“Your sister’s fever is becoming worse and I can’t wait for your father any longer. Nicholas, I want you to stay by Kathy and wipe her forehead with this damp cloth. Oh, and make sure she stays covered. I’ll be as quick as I can.” she said patting Nicholas’ head absentmindedly. After putting on her long overcoat she hurried out into the cold, wild, black night, a flurry of snowflakes rushing in through the door as she left.
Patiently, Nicholas watched Kathy for many hours until she stopped pushing the covers aside and her face became white and her hot little forehead grew cooler to his touch. As the ashes in the fire turned from black to grey Nicholas’ head nodded and he fell asleep on the floor beside the cot.
That was the way the villagers found him next morning when they brought the sad news that his father had been drowned in the storm. To make things even worse they also had to tell him that his poor mother had been killed by a tree falling on her on the way to fetch the doctor. Now of the once happy family of four, there was only Nicholas. He was an orphan.
Chapter 2 - The First Christmas Toys
Who would take care of little Nicholas now that he was all alone in the world? The fishermen and their wives had a meeting to discuss his plight. “We would take care of him of course,” said one, “but it’s not easy with five mouths to feed already, and he’s a growing boy.”
“It’s now the middle of winter and good fishing days are few and far between,” said another. “With luck we'll just scrape through until spring.”
Then kind, plump Mrs. Bavran spoke. “We have a reserve of food for this winter and there’s an old bed in our store room, so we could take in the poor little mite. But mind you, a fisherman’s life is never easy,” she added. “Who knows what might happen between this year and next? I think that we should all share Nicholas. There are ten of us here now, so if we each agree to have him for one year, that will take care of him until he’s fifteen, and without a doubt he’ll run away to sea long before that.”
Everyone agreed, and so Nicholas went to live with the Bavran family, moving in on Christmas Eve, the day before the Christmas feast. The children’s excitement only made him feel more miserable and he curled himself up in a corner of the storeroom, and with heartbroken sobs for his lost mother, father and beloved Kathy, Nicholas tried to drown the sounds of merrymaking in the cottage. But the door opened slowly, and a little form was seen in the ray of light.
“What do you want?” asked Nicholas almost roughly. “Go away. I want to be alone.”
Standing in the doorway, the little boy’s mouth quivered. “My boat’s broken,” he cried. “The new one given to me for the Christmas feast. Father’s gone out fishing and mother cant fix it. What shall I do?” he asked holding up a broken toy fishing boat. Nicholas dried his eyes on his sleeves and took the broken toy in his hands. “I’ll fix it for you.” he said as he turned back to his lonely corner.
“Oh, come in here where there’s more light,” said the young Bavran.
So Nicholas went in where there was more light, more children, and more laughter and for a while he forgot his sorrows.
As the months passed, Nicholas grew very fond of the Bavran children, Otto, Margaret and Gretchen. He loved playing with them, but he knew it couldn’t last forever. When Christmas day was approaching again and the Bavran family talked of Nicholas leaving them, he became very confused and frightened, yet his main thoughts were of how he could repay them for their kindness. Nicholas wished that he could give them all a gift, but the only things he owned in the world were the clothes that he wore, an extra coat and trousers, an old sea chest and the pocketknife that had belonged to his father. He just couldn’t part with any of these. Suddenly a wonderful idea came into his head. He would carve some toys for the children just as he had done for his dear little sister Kathy.
So for the last two weeks of his stay with the Bavran family, Nicholas worked secretly in the dark storeroom, hiding his knife and wood whenever he heard anybody approaching. He struggled furiously during the last few days so all the gifts could be finished by Christmas morning, because, it was Christmas when the Bavrans had taken him in last winter and now the time had come that he must be passed onto another family.
The children wept quietly as Nicholas packed his meager belongings and Mr. Bavran, waited to take him to the home of Hans the rope maker. The little orphan drew from out of his bag the rough little toys he had made and on seeing the children’s delight in their gifts he was so happy that he didn't feel like crying himself. A lovely glow spread over his heart when he saw their happy faces and heard their cries of thanks.
“Next Christmas I shall be able to make you even better toys.” said Nicholas, an air of determination in his voice. “Just you wait and see!”
With this promise, Nicholas now six years old, bravely left them, his small figure turned away from the happy scene to face the uncertainty of the year ahead with the new family. His face was sad, yet his bright blue eyes were warm with the thought of the happiness he had left behind.
“Well,” he thought to himself as they approached the rope maker’s house “maybe the five children here will be just as nice to me as the Bavrans and I can make toys for them too. Christmas can be a happy time for me even if it’s my moving day.”
Chapter 3 - The Sled Race
At the rope maker’s cottage most of the winter evenings were spent by the children learning how to wind and untangle masses of twine, and to most of the simple net mending. Nicholas discovered that by loosening strands of flaxen coloured hemp he could make the most realistic hair for the little wooden dolls he still found time to carve. When he left at the end of one year, the rope maker’s five little children found five small toys waiting for them on the mantle of their fireplace. Nicholas did not forget his promise to the three Bavran children, but made a special trip to their house on that Christmas morning with their gifts.
As the years went by, Nicholas became more and more skilful with his father’s pocket knife and all the children came to expect one of Nicholas’ toys on Christmas day. No child was ever disappointed, for the young wood carver always knew exactly what each child would like.
Christmas was only a week away when Nicholas, now aged fourteen, arrived at the school playground to find all his friends in a group chattering excitedly.
“What’s happening?” he enquired.
“There’s going to be a sled race on Christmas morning,” said Otto. “It will start from the Squire’s gate at the top of the hill and finish at the big pine on the far side of his house.’
“And the prize,” interrupted Hans, “is a grand new sled with metal runners.”
“Nicholas, you’ll enter won’t you? That’s not a bad sled you have, even though you...”
"Hush Jan.” whispered another. “It’s not nice to remind Nicholas that he built his own sled, just because our fathers had ours made for us.”
But Nicholas was not listening to the conversation. He was thinking swiftly. Finally he turned to the others and asked, “What time does the race begin?”
“Nine o’clock sharp on Christmas morning.” was the reply.
Nicholas shook his head doubtfully.
“I don’t know if I can make it,” he said slowly. He was thinking of the chest full of toys which he had planned to deliver to all the children on Christmas morning, especially the one for Elsa the wood cutter’s daughter, as she lived outside the village.
“Perhaps if I get up very early and really hurried,” Nicholas said to himself, then suddenly he realized that the race would pass right by Else’s cottage. The doll could be dropped off in a few seconds, allowing him to continue without loosing any time at all.
“I’ll be there! I’ll be there! At nine o’clock sharp and you had better watch out for that prize!” he shouted gleefully. Christmas morning was bright and sunny, with fresh crisp snow. Nicholas had been up long before the sun, and as usual had left toys in every doorway As the children set off with their sleds for the race, the whole village followed behind to watch the excitement. But there was no sign of Nicholas. Unfortunately one of his old sled’s wooden runners had broken under the strain of carrying the heavy load of toys. As he desperately tried to lash it together with rope, he could hear the faint echo of the Squire’s horn coming from the top of the hill. The race had started. Nicholas was deeply disappointed because he knew he had missed the chance to win the new sled, but as he had to go to the wood cutter’s cottage anyway to deliver Elsa’s present, he turned the battered sled upright and made a dash for the hilltop. As he reached the starting line, Nicholas saw his friends speeding off, looking like little black specks in the distance.
“Come on Nicholas,” called the villagers, “Let’s give you a good push to get you started. One, two, three. Off you go.”
Nicholas flew down the hill, his face stinging in the wind, faster and faster he went, the wooden runners hardly touching the hard packed snow. The black specks were becoming larger and Nicholas knew he must have been catching up to the other children. Larger and larger they became until Nicholas nearly fell off his sled with amazement. They had stopped and were waiting for him just in front to he woodcutter’s cottage.
“Hurry up Nicholas.” encouraged little Josef, “We would have waited for you at the top, but the Squire became impatient and made us start when the horn blew. You know we’d have waited for you if we could.”
“Yes,” shouted Otto, “now go and leave that doll in Elsa’s doorway, and let’s go! From now on just see how long we’ll wait for you! First come, first served for the new sled with metal runners.”
With a noisy whoosh, twenty children were off and the race continued over the frozen creek, through patches where they had to carry their sleds, zigzagging between trees and then the long hard pull up the hill behind the Squire’s house. Nicholas could only see one boy in front of him just as the big pine tree came into view. His mind was on how much he needed that new sled for his Christmas deliveries. Nicholas flew along so fast that for a moment he thought he would sail right through the tree splitting it in two, but just in time he steered his sled to one side and jumped off. When he pulled off his woolly hat, he could hear the shouts and cheers from the villagers. He had won the race. It was like a dream come true.
All the children pulled Nicholas home on his new sled and each mother and father that they passed, waved and smiled proudly, as happy as if it was their own child that had won the race.
Chapter Four - The Evening Before Christmas
After the crowd of villagers had dispersed on that merry Christmas day of the sled race, Nicholas was stopped at the door of the cottage where he had spent the last year by a lean, dark looking man who looked as though he had never smiled in his life. It was Bertram Marsden the wood carver of the village, who all the children called “Mad Marsden” because he lived alone, rarely spoke to anybody and chased the children away from his door with black looks and harsh words.
“You haven’t forgotten have you Nicholas that you move to my house today?” Marsden asked gruffly.
Nicholas looked up. Oh no, he hadn’t forgotten, and he well knew why Marsden had offered to take him in for the last year of his life as a wandering orphan. The only reason he was willing, even eager, to feed and clothe Nicholas was because for almost five years now he had watched the work he had been doing with his old pocketknife, and realised that Nicholas would make a very good and cheap apprentice for him.
Once again Nicholas packed his few belongings onto his new sled, said a grateful farewell to the family he was leaving, and followed Mad Marsden home to his mean looking cottage on the outskirts of the village.
On entering the cottage, Nicholas stepped immediately into the main workroom of the wood carver. Here was found his bench, work table, tools and an assortment of wood.
Marsden pointed to a door in the corner and said, “You can store your belongings in there.
Nicholas stood in the middle of the untidy room, looking around in dismay.
“There’s a bed you can sleep on and you might as well put that pretty sled away for good. We have no time here to go romping in the snow. Come now Nicholas, don’t stand there gawking. Put away your belongings; you have much to learn here. “I’m going to make a good wood carver of you. There’ll be no time for silly little dolls and wooden toys. You’ll have to earn your keep here. Oh, by the way you can keep that tribe of young children that always follow you about away from here, do you understand me boy?"
Nicholas bowed his head and went silently to work putting away his small bundle of belongings.
So Nicholas started to work for the mad old wood carver and learned that his father’s old pocket knife was a clumsy tool compared with the beautifully sharp knives and chisels that Marsden used. He learned to work for hours on end, bent over the bench beside his master, patiently going over a piece of wood until it was smooth as a piece of glass. Sadly Nicholas could not learn to get used to the dreadful loneliness of the cottage, and longed for the days when he had been in friendlier ones surrounded by laughing children. Over the months, so as not to make it obvious to Marsden, Nicholas gradually cleaned and brightened the cottage to make his enforced home bearable.
One night as Marsden sat in front of the fire, silently smoking his long curved pipe, he noticed that Nicholas was still bent over the workbench engrossed in some task.
“Here lad,” he said almost kindly, in his gruff voice. “I’m not such a hard master that I would have you work night as well as day. What’s that you’re doing? Why don’t you go to your bed?
“It’s only a small piece of wood you threw away,” said Nicholas quickly, “I’m trying to make a copy of that chair you finished today, but this is a little one- a toy,” he ended fearfully, for he well knew that the word “toy” would mean children to old Marsden, and for some strange reason just to mention a child in his presence sent him into a terrible rage.
Tonight however, he contented himself with merely a black look, and said, “Let me see it. Hmm, not bad, but you have the scroll on the back larger on one side than the other. Here, pass me that small knife.” Nicholas hastened to give him the small tool and watched admiringly as the old craftsman deftly corrected the mistake
“There,” Marsden said finally, holding the work away from him so that he could study it, “that’s the way it should be done.”
Then, instead of handing the little chair to Nicholas, who was waiting expectantly, he continued holding it in his hands whilst a sad expression came into the fierce old eyes as he remembered the toys he had made for his own two sons many, many years ago. Slowly a smile grew on the tired old face, Nicholas blinked and looked again. Yes a real smile was tugging at the corners of that stern mouth which had been turned down for so many years.
Marsden lifted his head, and looked at the strong young face with the kind blue eyes.
“You’re a good lad Nicholas, and,” he added almost shyly, for it wasn’t easy for a harsh man to change so quickly, “I think I’d like to help you with some of those little things you make. We’ll make them together these long winter evenings, eh, shall we Nicholas. You can deliver them on Christmas day in that fine sled of yours. Perhaps by then you might even like to stay and live with me next year,” the old man added in such a soft voice it sounded like a plea.
He grasped Nicholas’ arm almost roughly, then a peaceful expression crept into the lonely old face as the boy answered simply, “Yes, of course master. I’ll stay here with you just as long as you want me to.”
So every winter evening saw two heads bent over the workbench. A grey head with thick, shaggy hair, and the smooth yellow head of a boy. They worked feverishly during the weeks before Christmas and with the old man helping with the carving, Nicholas was able to add delicate little touches to the toys, which made them far more handsome than any he had made before. He painted the dolls’ faces so that their eyes were as blue and their cheeks and lips were as rosy as the little girls who would soon clasp them in their arms. The little chairs and tables were stained with the same soft colours that Marsden used on his own work; the little boys’ sleds and boats were shiny with bright new paints, red, yellow, blue and green
Only two nights before Christmas, everything was finished. Although a toy for every child in the village was packed onto the sled with metal runners, Nicholas and the old man were still working at the bench. This time, they were desperately trying to finish a chest, which had been ordered by a wealthy woman in the next village twenty miles away. It was late on Christmas Eve when it was eventually finished.
“I’m sorry,” said old Marsden reading Nicholas’ thoughts. “You’ll have to take it over tomorrow. I’d go myself, but I’m not as strong as I used to be. It’s an all day trip, twenty miles over, then you’ll have to wait a few hours to rest the horses, and then the twenty long miles back.
“If only she didn’t want the chest tomorrow,” said Nicholas.
“Well,” answered his master, “We did promise it, and it has to be delivered on time. Now the toys weren’t promised...”
“No, but I have given them,” interrupted Nicholas.
“I was going to say lad, that they weren’t promised for Christmas day. Now you know that little children go to bed early. Why can’t you...”
“Why of course!” Nicholas jumped to his feet shouting, “Where’s my list? Where’s my sled? I’ll have to hurry.”
Outside, the village was asleep. No one saw the lone figure, wrapped up against the crisp icy air, dragging a sled from house to house, leaving a small pile of toys in each doorway until it was empty. It was three o’clock on Christmas morning when Nicholas turned away from the last doorway. His sled was now much lighter to pull, but his feet were tired from trudging through the heavy snow, but he was happy it was Christmas and once again he had kept his unspoken promise to the children of the village.
Chapter Five - The First Christmas Stocking
Nicholas did not leave the wood carver on that Christmas day, or the next, or the next, but stayed on learning to be as good a wood carver as his old master. Marsden realized this and as he was now becoming too old to spend a full day carving, decided to retire and live with his sister in a nearby village. He was very proud of Nicholas and knew that he would be quite able to carry on by himself, and so it was that Nicholas became known as “Nicholas the Wood Carver.”
The village had grown so large that Nicholas did not know every child in the village the way he used to, and the only way that he could tell if a house had children was by a bag hanging on the door on Christmas Eve. With this increase in children his small sled could no longer carry the enormous number of toys and Nicholas had to use Old Marsden’s horse and sleigh for his now large rounds. It had become the custom of the children to leave a brightly decorated bag filled with oats on their doors and when the horse had eaten the oats, Nicholas would fill the bag with the toys he had made.
Nicholas’ life was not all work. One day he looked up from his workbench and saw some children having a snowball fight in the fresh snow. They were having so much fun that he couldn’t resist the temptation to join in. One of the children, whom Nicholas had never seen before, was standing watching shyly.
“ Here,” said Nicholas, handing him a large hard snowball, “try this one for size. Justin looks like a good target over there.”
“ Oh no! I have to gather some firewood and get home quickly,” said the small boy as he moved away pulling his empty sled.
“ Who’s the new fellow?” Nicholas enquired from the children when the boy was out of earshot.
“ That’s Frederick. He’s just moved into the village. His father had an accident at sea which paralysed him and now he has to stay in bed all day. The family is really poor so Frederick and his little brother Wilhelm don’t have any time to play because they are always helping their mother.
Later, as Frederick was pulling his sled of firewood home, he had only one thing on his mind. He had heard so much about Nicholas and how he only left toys at the doors that had bags hanging on them. It was only a few days until Christmas and Frederick could imagine his little brother’s face if he had a new toy on Christmas morning, but how could he arrange it so that Nicholas would know that there was a little boy in the house? He looked everywhere for a bag without success.
On Christmas Eve he tried to interest his mother in the problem.
“ Mother.” he began slowly. “Mother, do you suppose we have a bag in the house?”
“ A bag! What sort of bag Frederick?” she inquired in astonishment.
“ Well, it should be embroidered really, but I suppose any sort of bag would do. We have to hang it outside the door on Christmas Eve, and when Wilhelm wakes up tomorrow there will be a beautiful toy in it for him. Nicholas the wood carver does it for all the children of the village and I thought if there was only some kind of bag around here...”
His mother sighed, “Things like flour and potatoes come in bags and those we haven’t seen for ages. Goodness knows, with all my other worries, I have no time to embroider a bag or even make one. Anyway I’m sure this Nicholas person wouldn’t come to poor little children like you. Now go and get Wilhelm ready for bed. That might take your mind off your silly ideas.”
So sadly Frederick was forced to abandon the idea of putting a bag outside the door for his little brother’s Christmas gift, but he couldn’t forget about Nicholas. He thought about how he looked, such a kind, jolly man there out there by the forest. He felt sure Nicholas wouldn’t pass a child’s house just because they were poor. He thought and thought, and while sitting by the fireplace helping his little brother undress, he pulled of his warm, bright and woolly stocking. As Wilhelm held it up he said jokingly, “Now that would hold some kind of gift just a well as any embroidered bag. And why not?” he murmured to himself. “Why not indeed?” and with one leap he flung open the door and soon had the stocking tied to the door.
Once again this Christmas Eve, everything in the village was blanketed with white snow, sparkling under the bright winter moon. No lights were showing in the village and everyone was asleep... except Nicholas, of course, who was busy going from house to house leaving bulging bags filled with gifts. At Frederick’s doorway he paused. In the bright moonlight he saw a funny object dangling on the door. A child’s woolen stocking! Nicholas laughed silently to himself, a kind tender laugh, then reached down into his bag and filled the lonely little stocking up to the top, and then with a snap of his whip and the jingle of sleighbells he was off to the next house on his rounds.
When Frederick opened the door on Christmas morning, he and his little brother found not one, nor two but three toys each. Right down in the toe of the stocking he found five large coins, enough to keep the whole family all through the winter. The boys shouted with joy, while their father almost sat up in his bed with the excitement. Their mother’s eyes although always bright, were filled with happy tears as she watched Frederick and his brother hugging close to their hearts, the first Christmas stocking.
Chapter Six - The Red Suit
Squire Kenson, the richest man in the village, came driving up to Nicholas’ cottage one day with an order for a new chest of drawers. Nicholas was attracted by the sound of silver bells and reindeer hooves on the snow. He looked out of his window and was impressed by the way the squire had arrived in his shiny red sleigh drawn by two beautiful reindeer. Donner and Blitzen were their names because they travelled so swiftly, like thunder and lightning. Nicholas looked at the two beautiful animals and thought how much quicker they would pull him around the village on Christmas eve than his old horse Lufka, who was now getting slower and slower as the years passed by.
All the time the squire was talking, the woodcarver was gazing admiringly at the fine suit of red deerskin he was wearing. The coat was rather long and belted at the waist, the trousers loose and tucked into shiny black leather leggings. Soft white ermine fur was around the coat at the collar, cuffs and the bottom, with the same beautiful fur around the close-fitting hat. After the squire had left, Nicholas carried on with his work but his mind was on the beautiful red suit.
“There’s no reason why I can’t have one too,” he said to himself. “I’ve been going around dressed like an orphan instead of a wood carver for far too long.”
The very next day Nicholas paid a visit to Widow Arpen, the best dressmaker in the village.
“I want a fine red suit, Mrs. Arpen.” he started. “You know the one the squire wears?” The woman nodded. “Well unfortunately I can’t afford such fine soft deerskin and of course I know I can’t have mine trimmed with real ermine, so what do you suggest?”
The widow thought for a moment, then said, “We could get a bolt of strong homespun from the weaver which I could dye a rich red with rowan berries. As for the collar and cuffs, well pure white rabbit skin would look just perfect.”
“Done!” cried Nicholas, and he poured a handful of gold coins onto the table, “That should cover the materials and your work.”
“But that’s far too much.” exclaimed the widow, “Why half of this would keep my whole family right through the winter.”
“Keep it woman.” smiled Nicholas. “You’ve had a hard time and I’ll not be the man to die with a chest full of gold buried under the fire place.
"The widow stood at her door and watched Nicholas drive away through the snow. “Now there’s a fine man.” she murmured, the gold coins jingling through her fingers. “A fine big man.” And so she bought the home spun which she died a beautiful bright red, but a strange thing happened. She had no pattern to go by as Nicholas was wearing the only tunic he owned, so the widow cut and sewed the suit with the image of a fine big man constantly in front of her. Nicholas was not a short man by any means but he was rather thin, and yet as Mrs. Arpen cut out and sewed the suit together, she knew she was sewing for a fine generous man and she made the suit to fit his heart instead of his body.
On the day the suit was finished and the last loving stitch placed in the soft rabbit trimming, Nicholas arrived to try it on. He went into the widow’s little changing room and came out a few minutes later - and what a picture he made.
“I can’t see myself Mrs. Arpen,” said Nicholas doubtfully, “because the little mirror in your room only shows part of me at a time, but it did seem to go on rather loosely,” he finished tactfully, not wanting to hurt her feelings.
The widow gave one look at him and burst into tears. “Oh Nicholas, I’ve spoilt your suit. I’ve ruined it. I thought you were bigger. Oh, what shall I do?”
“There, there, don’t worry about it. Look at the length, that’s all right. It’s only that I’m not as fat as I should be. Why if I ate all the food the villagers sent me why, I guarantee in a few months time you wouldn’t notice it. The trousers will be fine as soon as I buy a pair of boots to tuck them into, and what a nice cap this is! See how closely it fits and how warm looking the fur band is!”
So Nicholas kept his oversized red suit and soon the villagers became used to the tall figure in the bright red trousers and tunic, the close fitting stocking cap trimmed with fur and the shiny black leather belt and boots. And what do you think happened after Nicholas ate more porridge, vegetables and milk, week after week? Yes his face became full, his chest filled out and he even began to acquire - whisper it - a belly!
Chapter Seven - The Reindeer
The next Christmas Eve Nicholas did not have such an easy time making his rounds of the village. To begin with, he was considerably amused and rather dismayed to discover that instead of one embroidered bag for each house, the children had followed little Frederick’s example and had each put out a woollen stocking. So with some families having five or six children, there was often quite a row of stockings nailed to the door. Of course Nicholas couldn’t very well just put one toy in each stocking as it made the rest of it look so flat and empty. Since he hadn’t stocked his sleigh with enough toys so that there would be several for each child, he found himself with an empty sleigh, and only half way through his list!
“Luckily I have an extra supply of toys at home in the chest,” he said to his horse Lufka as they returned to the cottage for more. Nicholas quickly loaded up the sleigh and off they went again to finish the rounds. When there were only a few houses left to visit, the tired old horse began to falter. “Come on old boy,” encouraged Nicholas, but Lufka was getting too old to spend all night struggling around the village, and this particular night he had made two trips. As he plodded through a deep snow bank Lufka stumbled and the sleigh slid into a ditch. Crack! went one of the runners. Nicholas climbed down and after making sure that his horse was alright, shook his head at the sight of the disabled sleigh.
Nicholas had to finish his rounds on foot that Christmas and the first pink streaks of dawn were brightening up the sky when he and Lufka finally returned to the cottage, Nicholas, fat and rosy, puffing heavily, while poor Lufka dragged his tired old bones straight to the stable door.
For many days after that disastrous Christmas eve, the villagers heard sounds of sawing and hammering coming from Nicholas’ wood shed. They wondered what he was building, and whenever anyone asked him what it was he would jokingly say, “Just wait and see.”
The villagers soon forgot their curiosity when an exciting piece of news spread through the village.
“What’s this I hear about the squire, Otto?” Nicholas asked his old friend.
“Ah,” said Otto, puffing away on his pipe. They say things have not gone too well for him over the last few years, so now he’s going to sell some of his land and furniture to pay back the people he owes money to. The sale is tomorrow, so why don’t you come up with us Nicholas?”
“Now what would I be wanting to buy from the squire? I don’t need any more land and I can make furniture every bit as good as any he has in the house. As a matter of fact I made some of it.”
“What about his animals?” asked Otto. “He has two fine horses and a team of reindeer.”
“That’s true,” said Nicholas, finally interested enough to put down his work. “Lufka is too old to be of much help to me now. I think I will go up there with you tomorrow and see some of the excitement.”
The next morning the squire’s house and surrounds thronged with eager people. Some had come to buy while others just to watch or be nosy. Nicholas strode past the horses straight to the stables where the reindeer were kept. “He’s after Donner and Blitzen,” the men whispered to each other. “He’s always admired the way they go so fast.”
The squire, now a bent old man with a worried look on his face, seemed somewhat bewildered by all the people talking about his house and possessions. When Nicholas showed his interest in the two reindeer he replied sternly, “Well you can’t have Donner and Blitzen alone. The set of reindeer go together or not at all. Why Donner would go raving mad if she was separated from the rest of her family.”
“Family!” exclaimed Nicholas. “But Squire I only need two reindeer. How many more...?” Eventually Nicholas weakened and became the proud owner of not two, but eight prancing reindeer, Donner and Blitzen, the mother and father with their six children, Dasher and Dancer, Comet and Cupid, Prancer and Vixen.
This year Nicholas was planning for a bigger and better Christmas Eve than ever before and worked day and night to finish the toys. Finally the great night arrived. Nicholas finished tying the eight reindeer to each other with a harness bright with jingling silver bells. He slowly backed them up to the wood shed door, which he proudly opened, disclosing a most beautiful sight. There stood a bright, shining red sleigh, trimmed with silver stripes, the runners curving up in the front to form a swan’s head, the back roomy enough to hold toys for children of several villages. Nicholas guided the reindeer into the shafts and climbed up onto the high seat, so beautifully padded with cushions made of soft doe skin. He took out of its holder, a long shiny black whip, cracked it in the cold air, and they were off. That night the villagers were woken from their sleep by a merry jingling of silver bells, the stamp of reindeer’s hooves on the hard snow and the sharp crack of a whip. They peeked out from behind their curtains and saw by the white light of the moon, a shinning red sleigh drawn by eight prancing reindeer whose flying hooves moved as fast as lightning. Perched high up in the seat, snapping a long whip with one hand and guiding the reindeer with the other was a large round man, dressed in a belted red tunic trimmed with white fur, baggy trousers stuffed into high black boots and a close fitting red stocking cap which flew in the wind. Of course they weren’t close enough to see his face, but one and all, as they returned to their warm beds murmured kindly, “That’s Nicholas on his way to the children. God bless him.”
Chapter Eight - The First Christmas Chimney
When Nicholas was about fifty years old, and his hair and beard were becoming as white as the snow, a strange family came to live in the village. Not much of a family you may think, just one small old man, brown and wrinkled like a nut and a skinny little girl who drew back shyly from the crowd of villagers, who had gathered as they always did when someone new came to live.
“His name is Carl Dinsler.” one woman whispered. “The old squire’s housekeeper told me about him. She said that he was very rich. He must be rich to be able to buy the big old house up on the hill.”
“He may be rich but he doesn’t look it.” remarked another. “Did you notice that poor little child he had with him? She looks as though she needs a good square meal. Who is she anyway?”
“She’s his grand-daughter. Her parents died a little while ago and they say the old man bought the house on the hill so that they could be alone.”
“Do you know what he has done?” asked one little boy of the interested crowd. “He’s nailed up all the gates and left only the front one open and that one he keeps locked with a bolt as large as this.” He spread out his hands to show the size. “And that’s not all. I don’t know how you would get into the house any way because he’s put up boards over the windows and the front and side doors. There’s not a sign of life anywhere in the old house now. You would think that it was disserted.”
“Why, the old man must be crazy.” they all said. “He must be afraid of somebody.”
“Afraid nothing.” one man remarked, “The only thing he’s afraid of is that someone will steal his money.”
“I’m sure Nicholas the wood carver will be interested in this news,” said another. “One more child in the village, and such a lovely one too.”
“Nicholas already knows about her.” they heard a deep voice say and the villagers turned to see it was the wood carver himself who had joined the group unnoticed.
“Her name is Kathy. I once knew a girl with that name.” he went on with a sad faraway look in his usually merry blue eyes as he remembered his little sister. “I’d like to do something special for the poor little girl.”
“How did you find out her name, Nicholas?”
“She was wandering around in her yard just like a forlorn puppy who had been locked in,” Nicholas answered. “I was passing that way and stopped at the gate so that I could talk to her. She says that she’s not allowed outside the fence and can only play in the yard for one hour a day. She also told me that her grandfather doesn’t want her to play with the other children from the village in case she talks about his gold and where he keeps it.”
“As if we’d touch his money,” the villagers said angrily. “He’s a nasty old man. Why I’ll bet he won’t even let her put out a stocking on Christmas Eve.”
“That’s a safe bet,” laughed Nicholas, “he wouldn’t open the front door even to let in something that was free!”
The crowd broke up and Nicholas went back to his work but over the following months he often thought of lonely little Kathy. He saw her several times and she told him she wouldn't be allowed to hang out her stocking at Christmas. The last time he visited her, old Dinsler shook his stick at him and told him to keep away from his house. After that, Kathy wasn’t seen again but Nicholas still made a few toys for her and packed them away, just in case.
A few days before Christmas, Nicholas took a walk around the big boarded up house. He looked up at the covered doors and windows and his eyes brightened as he noticed the huge stone chimney on the roof. He chuckled to himself, “I’ll try it! I might get stuck but it’s worth the try.”
Christmas Eve was dark and moonless with the wind whistling through the streets and the light snow stung Nicholas’s face and covered the sleigh and reindeer with a shining coat of ice.
“Come on,” he encouraged the reindeer, “Only the house on the hill left.”
He shivered in his red coat and must have looked like a giant snowman with the snow forming icicles on his white beard. He tied the reindeer to the front gate, took his sack from the back of the sleigh and climbed from his high seat to the top bar of the fence and jumped into the yard. He stopped to listen but could only hear the banging of shutters in the wind. He crept over to the side of the house where a vine covered one door and this made an ideal ladder to the roof. Being so fat and bulky and with the sack on his back it was hard work, but finally he puffed his way to the roof. This was the dangerous part as it was slippery with the snow and ice, and he had to hack away with his knife to make footholds. Finally a large shape loomed up above him. It was the chimney. Nicholas stopped and rested for a moment, then leaned over the edge and looked down the chimney into the inky blackness.
“Just as I thought,” he murmured, “the old miser lets the fire go out at nights.... even on such a bitter cold one as tonight.” He climbed over the edge and began his dangerous decent, feeling carefully with his feet for the jutting bricks, pressing his hands flat on the sides and bracing his back against the wall. Slowly he inched his way down until he felt solid earth beneath his feet. He stepped out of the fireplace into a room almost as dark as the chimney. Gradually as his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he could make out a table and by groping in the darkness eventually found a stub of a candle, which he soon had lit. He drew out from the sack a bright blue woollen stocking, and filled it up to the brim with toys. Also he left nuts and lollies as he thought the hungry little girl wouldn’t have had treats like this for some time. Nicholas the hung the stocking on the mantelpiece, weighed it down with a heavy candlestick and stood back to admire the good job he had done. Just as he was about to blow out the candle Nicholas was startled by the sudden opening of a door and old Dinsler rushing into the room.
“Sneaking into my house, are you? After my gold I suppose? I’ll show you what I do with thieves, I’ll show you!” The old man picked up a poker and swung it at Nicholas, who jumped to one side so that the table was between them.
“Don’t be so foolish,” he said quickly, realising that Dinsler was in a rage and dangerous. “I haven’t come after your gold. Look...”
“Haven’t you. Well then what brings you into my house in the middle of the night.”
“I’ll tell you what! Look behind you at that stocking. The other children in the village leave their stockings outside their front doors, but you have so frightened your grandchild that she is afraid to ask you for anything. I only wanted to make her feel wanted like other children, and that she should get gifts the same as they do on Christmas morning.”
“Gifts!” exclaimed the old man, bewildered and lowering the poker. “You mean you give things away?” He looked at Nicholas with a very strange look.
“Yes,” replied Nicholas, relieved to see the poker being put away. “I’ll even give you a Christmas gift, you mean old man.” He reached inside his deep pocket and poured a stream of bright gold coins onto the table in front of Dinsler. “Here, if gold is all you care about, take this.. and more... and more to add to your hoard! And now,” Nicholas said with an air of authority as he brushed some soot from one eye, “Will you please show me to your front door. If I have to climb back up the chimney I’ll never get this suit clean again.”
With that he marched from the room, in some ways a ridiculous stout figure covered in soot, yet he looked very impressive to old Dinsler, as he hurried ahead to open the door for Nicholas to return out into the cold black night.
The next week the village buzzed with excitement. Something was happening up on the hill. The old miser had ripped the boards off the windows and doors. He had bought a horse and cart and had been down to the village to buy huge quantities of food. He had also spoken to the school teacher and within a few days Kathy and her grandfather were seen on the road leading to the school, the little girl’s face beaming up at the old man, her feet skipping along to keep up with him and her warm little hand tucked into his fist. All this because Nicholas had climbed down a chimney to fill ONE stocking!
Chapter Nine - The First Christmas Trees
Very close to Nicholas’ cottage was a thick grove of pine trees, tall, beautiful dark trees that lifted their branches high up into the sky and formed a perfect shelter for the ground underneath. Scattered in among the larger trees were a cluster of firs, brave little trees, which kept their sturdy branches green all through the cold northern winter and came through each heavy snow storm with their shiny needles still pointed towards the sky.
The children used to play in this grove, because no matter how stormy the weather was outside, here they could find a warmer, more sheltered spot away from the bitter winds. In the summer time it was a charming place, with the sharp keen scent of the pine trees and the soft murmuring of their branches in the breeze.
Nicholas loved this little grove, for in order to get there, the village children had to pass his cottage, and hardly a group went passed his door without one or more of them dashing in to say “Good day” to their old friend and to watch him at work at his fascinating toys.
One day as Nicholas glanced out of his window, he noticed a group of children running from the grove. As they became closer he could see that they were frightened and as they ran into his cottage for cover, puffing and panting, Nicholas asked, “What’s happened? You all look so frightened.”
“They’ve got long black hair,” one boy cried out, “And the men wear rings in their ears,” piped in another. “We couldn’t understand a word they spoke.”
“Slow down, Slow down,” said Nicholas, “Who are you talking about?”
“Strange people with dark skin and hair.”
“Did they have horses and carts with them?” asked Nicholas with a knowing look.
“Yes, and big covered wagons. ”
“They sound like gypsies to me,” replied Nicholas, though they don’t usually come so far north. They must have lost their way, and now they’ll camp here until spring. There’s no need to be afraid of them. They are people just like you and me.”
Reassured, the children ran back into the grove to investigate these new people. They soon made friends with the gypsies and discovered that the children played the same games as them, as well as some interesting new ones. As Christmas drew near, they told the gypsy children about Nicholas, and how he drove up on Christmas eve on a red sleigh pulled by eight shiny reindeer and filled their stockings with beautiful toys that he had made.
“Once, when he couldn’t get into Kathy’s house because it was all boarded up, he climbed down the chimney!”
“He can’t visit us,” joked one gypsy girl, “We don’t have any doors, nor do we wear stockings. We certainly don’t carry chimneys with us,” she laughed.
Little Sonya, who wanted everybody to be happy, reported some of these things to Nicholas, and came away from his cottage with a contented mind, for she knew that the wise smile on his face meant that he had a plan in his kind old head.
On Christmas Eve, the reindeer were surprised to find that when their usual sound was over, Nicholas drove them right past his cottage and out towards the forest, stopping on the edge of the pine grove. A dark figure with a wide grin stepped forward. This was Grinka, the leader of the band of gypsies.
“Here you are Grinka,” said Nicholas, giving him a bundle of small white candles. “You go ahead with these and I’ll follow.”
Grinka stopped at every small fir tree in the grove and tied candles to their branches. Nicholas followed behind, covering the branches of each tree with nuts, shiny red apples and of course a sample of every one of his toys. It was almost dawn when the pair had finished, but there was a tree for each family with children.
“Now for the lights,” said Nicholas and they went from tree to tree, touching a taper to each candle, until the whole dark grove was twinkling and glowing like the centre of a warm hearth fire.
“I think that’s the prettiest part of it all,” said Nicholas, “and you must be sure to wake the children before the sun gets through the pine trees and spoils the effect.”
“Alright,” said Grinka, "I’ll go and wake them now, before you go.”
“Oh No!” said Nicholas alarmed. “They mustn’t see me. The children must NEVER see me. It would spoil it all. Now I must go!”
Nicholas jumped onto his sleigh and was off, with the familiar jingling of silver bells and the crack of his long silver whip.
A few minutes after his departure, Grinka had aroused all the children in the camp. Nicholas should have stayed just to see the joy on the thin little faces as they scampered among the trees, each one discovering something new to shout about.
“It’s the lights on these lovely little trees that makes everything so beautiful,” said one child.
“No, it’s the presents! Exclaimed another. “Just look at this pretty little doll I have!”
“It’s the fruit and nuts,” added one hungry child stuffing his mouth with goodies.
“I think everything is so beautiful because it’s Christmas,” decided one wise little boy. “Yes, yes, because it’s Christmas!” they all shouted, dancing around.
“And these are our Christmas trees!”
Chapter Ten - Holly
Holveg, who everyone called Holly, was a timid little girl who was sometimes frightened by the dark. Her skill at growing flowers in the harsh climate was remarkable and nothing gave Holly more pleasure than to repay Nicholas’ generosity by sharing flowers with him. One day as she was arranging the flowers for him she queried,
“Are you afraid of goblins?” Nicholas put down the toy he was working on and turned a surprised face toward the little girl. “Goblins!” he exclaimed. “Now here am I, well past sixty years old and I’ve never heard of goblins. What are they Holly?” he asked in an interested tone. Holly looked confused, then a doubtful tone crept into her voice, “Why I don’t exactly know,” she confessed, “but I’ve heard of them and when I’m lying in my bed at night I’m sure that’s what I see creeping about my room.”
“They must be shadows,” said Nicholas, “I’ve never come across goblins, or for that matter ghosts either,” he added.
Holly looked very impressed and said, “If I think I see a goblin in my room, I’ll just say to him, Nicholas says you just aren’t, you old goblin!”
They both laughed and Nicholas hugged the little girl and told her it was time for her to run home for her supper. The winter months passed by and when spring arrived and it was time again for planting the flowers, Holly fell very sick. All through the summer weeks she lay on her bed, weakened by a fever, recognizing no one, not even her beloved Nicholas. He brought flowers to her, hoping that they might bring back the wandering little mind, but she only pushed them away and went on with her delirious ravings of big black giants and horrible goblins. For with her illness, her almost forgotten fears had returned and with a heavy heart Nicholas realised that their friendly little talks had been completely wiped from her mind. She gradually recovered but the fever left her the same pale, timid little girl she had been when she had first brought a bouquet to Nicholas.
Holly was sadder than she had ever been during her entire life. Everything seemed black to her and her nights were filled with terror in spite of all that Nicholas had told her. But more than anything else, he worried because she had no flowers to take to him. Holly pressed her thin little face against the window pane and looked with tear filled eyes out into her bleak front garden.
As some boys passed her gate they paused to wave kindly to her. Holly waved back and wiped her eyes. She pushed open the window a little and called out, “What’s that green bush you have in your sled Karl?”
The boys came over to the window and Karl held up an armful of branches with lovely little warm red berries scattered among shiny pointed green leaves.
“Why it’s so beautiful!” exclaimed Holly, clasping her hands. Her dull eyes began to sparkle a little as she asked, “What is it? Where did you get it Karl?”
“We found it in the woods, way back in the part they call the dark forest. It grows like this even in the middle of winter but I don’t know what it’s called.”
“Oh, it’s so pretty,” said Holly again, “but, but, did you say the dark forest?”
“Yes,” answered Karl, “and it’s dark alright. The sun hardly ever gets through those trees and if you get lost in there I guess you’d stay lost for ever.”
“Yes added another boy. “I wouldn’t go in there alone I can tell you,” and off they went waving some of their prize and leaving Holly picturing the bright red berries and shiny green leaves in her mind. How Nicholas would love some of that cheery little bush. But the dark forest! She shuddered.
“There must be all kinds of terrible things in there,” she thought. “Wild animals and strange noises and maybe, behind the trees - goblins!”
Holly shook a little and then suddenly she had a mental picture of herself when she was in Nicholas’ cottage saying, “I’ll just look at him and say, Goblin, Nicholas says you just aren’t.”
Holly buried her little face in her hands. “Oh, if only I dared to do it,” she almost sobbed. “Nicholas says to do anything when you are really afraid is braver than if you felt no fear at all. But that’s a horrible place. Even the boys are afraid to go there alone. But I haven’t any flowers for him and he’s always so kind to us and spring is so far away!”
So she sat there for a long time, her mind turning from one decision to another. “Maybe there would be some sun in the forest and if I hurried and found the berries quickly, perhaps I could be back again before dark. I’m going to do it!”
She ran for her cloak before she had a chance to change her mind and before her mother returned from the village.
Nicholas looked up from his work and saw a little figure flying along the road, right past his cottage and into the forest.
“That looked like Holly,” he thought startled. “No, it can’t be. She’s not well yet. Besides,” he shook his head sadly, “The poor little thing would be too terrified to go into the forest as it was dark enough for goblins,” he said with a chuckle.
An hour later however, he was interrupted from his work by Holly’s frantic mother. “Oh, I thought she was here,” she cried.
“When I came home and found her gone, I was sure I would find her with you. She’s still so weak and look, it’s beginning to snow!”
Nicholas was soon pulling on his bright red coat and fur trimmed cap. “I’ll find her, don’t you worry.” He looked out at the grey afternoon sky filled with black clouds. Already the air was filled with millions of snowflakes, scurrying and tumbling in every direction.
“I know where to look,” said Nicholas. “I’ll take the small sled with Vixen and we’ll have Holly back here before the snow covers my path.”
Holly meanwhile had found the red berries and her joy on seeing the cheerful little bush almost chased away the thoughts of what awful things might be lurking behind the huge tree trunks or hiding on the bough, waiting to spring down at her. She gathered a large armful of the berries and started back again, her heart beginning to pound as the light inside the forest grew dimmer and dimmer.
As she started to run, the snow whirled in white mists around her. The wind whistled through the branches and moaned high up in the tree tops. It caught Holly’s cloak and wrapped it around her head, making her think that some ghostly hand was plucking at her and trying to keep her in this terrible place.
She ran faster and faster, her arms clutching the bundle of berries, her head bent against the wind, and her feet tripping over rocks and stumps hidden in the snow. She breathed heavily and in spite of the biting wind she felt her head grow hotter and hotter. Her heart was pounding so hard she thought it would burst through her ribs.
“I can’t see anything,” she sobbed, “It’s getting darker and darker. I can’t lift my feet and the trees are falling on me. “OH!” she shrieked aloud as her terrified eyes saw a huge form looming at her through the clouds of snow. She closed her eyes and fell in a faint, face down in front of Nicholas and Vixen.
When she next opened her eyes she was in the wood carver’s cottage with her mother holding her in her arms and Nicholas’ kind face looking anxiously down on her.
“Where are my flowers?” was her first question. “I went into the dark forest alone to get them for you. Where are they?”
Nicholas put the red berries and branches in her arms. “Here they are my dear. Did you bring them for me?”
“Yes Nicholas, and I was afraid, but I’ll never be again, I know that now.”
Nicholas wiped a tear from his eye. “You shouldn’t have gone so soon after being sick, but I do love the little berries. What are they called?”
“I don’t know, but I liked them because they remind me of you, so round, red and shiny,” said the little girl with a mischievous laugh.
“That’s funny,” answered Nicholas, “they remind me of you somewhat, so brave growing out there in the darkness and cold. Those little berries have the deep red of courage in them, so I think I’ll christen them and from now on we’ll call them ‘Holly’.”
Chapter Eleven - The Last Stocking
The years passed and Nicholas was now a very rich man even though he shared all he had with his friends in the village. Every Christmas morning the children would wake to find their stockings filled with toys and sweets. The poorer families would also find food... such things as chickens, vegetables and hams and often bundles of clothing would be left on their doorsteps.
But as you would expect, each year he would be a little feebler and the villagers who loved and respected him began to worry. Each Christmas morning as the children excitedly took the gifts from their stockings, the fearful thought in every parent’s heart was “Maybe next Christmas he won’t be with us.”
A few days before one Christmas, a number of villagers called on Nicholas with a suggestion. “We thought Nicholas,” said one man a little hesitantly, “we thought that you must get so cold filling the stockings outside the door, especially when there are five or six in the family, that it would be better if the children left their stockings inside by the fire.”
“Then you could come in and sit by the fire and take your time about it,” added one woman kindly.
Old Nicholas looked up from the work he was doing and smiled. He placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Ho, ho, ho. Fancy you coming here to tell me how to do my work.” he joked. “Why I remember filling an embroidered bag for you when you were smaller than your own children are now. Then things changed when they started putting out stockings instead of bags and now you want me to change again and leave them inside. Well I suppose I must keep up with the times and if you all think it’s better to have them inside, then inside I will go.”
So from then on Nicholas would quietly creep into the houses on Christmas Eve and sit in front of the fire, slowly filling the stockings. Often the children would leave him a drink and a piece of cake, as they knew that he had a long night of exhausting work.
One Christmas Eve, old Nicholas found it harder than usual to leave each home. The warm fire made him feel drowsy and his old bones ached as he wearily pulled himself up to go. He made slow progress from one house to another until thankfully he arrived at his last stop, his back hurting from carrying his bulky sack, his head drooping with tiredness and his heart heavy as he realised how old he must be. The work he had done with such enthusiasm for so many years was now almost too much for him. He dropped into a chair by the fire with a deep sigh of relief and it was a long time before he recovered enough to start filling the stockings. Even then he did it very slowly and it hurt as he reached down into the bottom of the sack, each time straightening himself with growing difficulty. He finished filling four of the five stockings but with the fifth one still empty in his hand he fell sound asleep.
About an hour later he woke with a start when he felt a hand shaking him.
“Are you alright Nicholas?” asked a worried voice, “I got up to see if the fire had gone out and found you still here. Why it’s nearly dawn.”
Nicholas shook himself then stood up wearily. “Yes, it’s Christmas morning and I haven’t finished my work.”
“Never mind. I’ll finish the last stocking for you.” said the man, “Just leave the presents and go home to bed, but hurry before the children wake up and see you.”
Nicholas, thinking of his warm comfortable bed, handed over the stocking and presents and wearily headed outside.
A few minutes later a little boy in his pyjamas stood in the doorway. “What are you doing daddy?” he asked in a disappointed tone. “I thought it was Nicholas who gave us the toys.”
The child looked ready to cry but his father reassured him, “Your Nicholas is getting old,” he said, “and sometimes we fathers have to help him, but remember, it’s Nicholas who leaves the toys for you.”
“That’s alright then,” said the little fellow. “It isn’t half as much fun if you think it’s your mother or father who leave the gifts.”
“I should say not,” said the father very sternly, “and you must never doubt Nicholas. Why he would be so hurt at a little boy thinking he didn’t fill the stockings that he might never come to his house again. Wouldn’t that be terrible?’
“Yes,” whispered the boy in a frightened voice. “What would Christmas be without Nicholas?”
Chapter Twelve - Nicholas Sleeps
Holly was no longer little Holly, but a lovely slender young girl who led a happy life, her childish terrors long forgotten. She still continued the practice of bringing flowers to her old friend and every Christmas Eve she would go into the dark forest to gather holly to decorate his cottage on Christmas morning.
It was almost noon, and as she approached the cottage she noticed how silent and empty it looked without Nicholas bending over his work and no smoke coming from the chimney.
She stole silently into the cold little cottage and quietly opened the door to his bedroom.
“Why the darling was so tired he fell asleep with his clothes on,” she murmured tenderly. For the fat round figure lay there, still dressed in the bright red suit with the white fur, the shiny black boots and the close fitting cap.
“Here’s your holly,” whispered the girl, bending over Nicholas.
Then with a startled exclamation she dropped the red berries over the still figure and sprang back frightened. It was a few moments before Holly realised what must have happened and as she edged back close to him she sobbed, “Poor Nicholas. Why did you have to die? We all loved you so much.” She gently arranged the holly around his bed then ran out into the snow and with tears running down her face called loudly for the villagers.
They gathered in little groups to listen to her story. The women murmured in broken tones between sobs, “He’s dead!” and clasped their wondering little children closer, as if to comfort them for the loss of their dearest friend. The men looked everywhere except into each other’s eyes, for no man wanted to see the tears that were there. “Yes he’s dead,” they all sighed deeply.
“Who’s dead mother? Is it Nicholas?” asked the children.
“Won’t he come to visit us any more on Christmas Eve?”
And the parents had to turn away from the wide childish eyes because they didn’t want to say that awful sentence, “Yes, Nicholas is dead.”
The bells tolled and the village was in darkness that Christmas night. Vixen and his family whimpered in their stalls and holly glowed red over the still, loving heart in a red suit.
Chapter Thirteen - Santa Claus Is Born
The year that followed Nicholas’ death on that Christmas morning was a very sad one for all the villagers They had tenderly put Nicholas to rest in the pine grove near the spot where the children had played with him in the past. The eight reindeer were no longer in the stall behind the empty cottage, but had been taken by Kathy to the stables at the big house up on the hill. In the months that passed, many a mother would pick up a little doll from the floor and gently wipe the dust from its face with a suddenly tear dimmed eye for the generous heart who had made the little toy with so much love. It gradually entered even the youngest mind that Nicholas was dead and would no longer fill their stockings at Christmas. They cried a little, but gradually the image of the fat, cheerful old man faded from their memories and so the year passed until it was again Christmas eve.
“Mother, are we going to hang up our stockings?”
“No child. Have you forgotten that Nicholas is no longer here and can’t come to fill your stockings?”
This question was asked and similarly answered in almost every house in the village on that Christmas eve.
All over the village, children went sadly to bed without hanging up their stockings, except for one little boy, Stephen, who refused to believe that Nicholas wouldn’t come. He astonished his parents when he calmly went about hanging up his stocking just the way he had done every Christmas eve since he could remember.
“But Stephen, he’s dead,” said his mother. “He can’t come”
“Of course he’ll come” said a determined Stephen, “we must keep the fire burning for him.”
So that night, all the doors were shut and the fires put out, apart from Stephen’s house, where a lonely stocking hung beside a cheerful blaze.
Just after midnight, Holly woke up. “I thought I heard sleigh bells and reindeer hooves,” she said sleepily. “It must have been a dream” and she turned over and drifted back to sleep.
Christmas morning dawned bright and clear, the village silent under a blanket of snow.
Suddenly the tranquillity was shattered by a wild shout as the door of one cottage burst open. “He’s been!” shrieked Stephen.
“He’s been. Look at my stocking! It’s filled just the same as last Christmas and there’s a big new sled by our fireplace. I knew it. Look everybody, Wake up, wake up! Nicholas has been.”
Men, women, and children jumped from their beds to see what all the noise was about, and the children leaped right into the largest piles of toys they had ever seen. They were all around the fireplaces, on the tables and chairs, and even beside their beds. The entire village opened its doors and poured out into the streets, the children dragging handsome new sleds laden with the most beautiful toys the village had ever seen.
“Did you see this? Look at my boat.”
“He must have come down the chimney when he found the door locked. There was some soot on the floor.”
“Isn’t it wonderful? It’s the happiest Christmas we’ve ever had!”
“Little Stephen found a fir tree in a tub, decorated with more gifts, fruit and candles, the same way the gypsy children found their gifts many years ago.”
“Yes, and Stephen says there’s a big, shiny star at the very the top.”
“That’s because Stephen believes in him,” they said ashamed of themselves, “But now we believe too.”
An old woman watching all the happy faces, said in her cracked voice, “He’s a saint, that’s what he is!”
“Yes he’s Saint Nicholas now!” They all took up the cry and the whole village joined in shouting, “Saint Nicholas! Saint Nicholas!”
A little boy’s voice tried to add his stumbling speech to the general shouting. “Sant Clos! Sant Clos!” he lisped.
“We believe now,” the children and their parents all said to each other.
“How could Saint Nicholas be forgotten by us. We believe he will always visit us on Christmas eve as long as there is one child left in the village”
“In the village,” echoed little Stephen, “You mean in the whole wide world,” he shouted triumphantly.
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