St. Nicholas is probably one of the most popular saints of the Advent season. He is, of course, extremely popular with children. Many cultures have very old traditions associated with his feast day which is December 6th. These traditions can involve leaving your shoe out on the evening before St. Nicholas' feast day with the anticipation that in the morning you would awaken to find that St. Nicholas had left you treats in your shoe.
Of course, the idea is that children receive the gifts from St. Nicholas if they have been well-behaved. As we will see in this story, there are some traditions that even have someone playing the part of St. Nicholas and going from house-to-house to visit with the children.
In terms of the saint himself, St. Nicholas (died c. 346) was a bishop of Myra which is in modern day Turkey. He was known for his generosity and help for the poor, the innocent, and the wronged.
The Barn is on Fire
Eventually, the crackling sound of fire on the late November night awakened the neighbor who lived very near the barn. Realizing that it was not a dream, he leapt from bed, put on his coat and ran out of his house shouting "Fire!" Indeed, the Leitner barn had flames as high as a house shooting up into the cold dark sky.
The cry was echoed by others who passed on the alarm and rushed to the Leitner farm. As the church bells began to ring to waken the whole town, the Leitner family was met by others who had rushed to their farm to help. Not long after that, the fire truck roared to the scene and the fire fighters began to try to quench the ever-growing fire.
The Leitner barn was filled with recently harvested straw which fed the hungry flames which quickly engulfed the entire structure of the barn. The fire fighters were joined by volunteers, and throughout the remainder of the night they worked tirelessly to put out the conflagration.
Eventually, by morning's first light, the fire had been put out. The barn, however, was a total loss.
Please Come with Me
Matthew Leitner who had farmed his land for years, was only able to stare at the charred structure that remained where once his barn had stood.
The police chief and fire chief interrupted the farmer's thoughts as they wanted to talk with him.
They quickly got to the point, as the police chief spoke.
"Matthew, sorry about the barn. Are you insured?"
"Yes, up to 8,000."
"We are just going to check around and see if there is anything to see."
They proceeded to pick through as much of the burnt remains as they could. They were looking for any clues as to the cause of the fire. Suspicions were high with any fires because recently, there had been a spate of fires that had turned about to be self-inflicted arson in order that the insurance money might be collected.
The smoldering remains did not reveal much until the fire chief picked up a bluish metal can which was marked with enough legible letters to be recognized as a can for kerosene. The can was presented to Matthew and his wife Anna who acknowledged that it was her gas can. However, she had no idea how the can arrived in the barn.
For the police chief who had become frustrated with the recent arson, it was enough evidence, and he asked to speak to the farmer by himself.
At first he could not make eye contact with Matthew Leitner because he knew him well and considered him a hard-working and upright man. However, his duty needed to be done, and he told Matthew that he must come along with him to the police car.
Anna asked what was happening and would have continued to go toward the police car, but when she heard cries of "Mama!" from her daughter, four-year-old Barbara, she drew back to the farm house. By the time she had bundled up her child who had come to the front door in her bare feet, the police car had pulled away with her husband.
Word of Matthew Leitner's arrest spread quickly and the opinions of those who had also shared the police chief's opinion of the man began to change. Matthew Leitner was now being called an arsonist.
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Matthew found himself in the local jail. He felt alone, confused, and desperate to hear from his wife. He did not know when that would happen, and of course, he had no idea when he would be able to see his daughter again.
During the first day, the parish priest came to visit with Matthew. Matthew let him know that he was grateful for his visit and his offer to help in any way. Curiously, he left Matthew with a book about stories of St. Nicholas. It was an interesting choice because the farmer had been reading a book about St. Nicholas to his family as they prepared for his upcoming feast day.
Sadly, Matthew realized that he would not be with his daughter Barbara for St. Nicholas Day which was only days away. Pushing aside these melancholy thoughts, he picked up the book given to him by the priest.
Finding a random story to read in the book, Matthew found no small comfort that he turned to a story about St. Nicholas helping to free an innocent man. Recalling that he was the patron saint of prisoners, the farmer prayed a fervent prayer to God and to his servant St. Nicholas asking that he be found innocent and that he would soon return home to his wife and daughter.
Later that night, he remembered the hope that had sprung up when he prayed that prayer after reading the story in the book. He prayed again to God and St. Nicholas. Then, he imagined his wife tucking in Barbara as she hugged her favorite doll Nanni.
The reality was different than Matthew had imagined it. Anna was indeed tucking in Barbara, but Nanni was nowhere to be found. When Anna had asked Barbara about her doll, the young girl had shaken her head and quickly replied that Nanni was not here.
Over the next several days, the doll was forgotten. Anna became preoccupied with her own concerns. The court had ordered her to testify against her husband by acknowledging that the kerosene can was hers. What a dilemma for her! The truth was that it was her can, but by saying that in front of the judge, she would surely condemn her own husband.
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A Saint Comes to Visit
On the night of December 5th, Anna and Barbara heard a knock at the door. Anna had prepared Barbara, but both were startled more from Anna's concerns about the future than anything else.
Following the yearly tradition in their town, it was Mr. Silcher the shepherd who was dressed up as St. Nicholas the bishop. Mr. Silcher was a tall man and with his miter on top of his graying hair, he had to bend over to get through the front door.
The previous year Barbara had struggled to say the "Our Father" although she had known it by heart. She had been so in awe of the saint's visit, she had not been able to get out the words.
This year seemed like it would be a repeat performance as Barbara stayed close to her mother when the friendly guest spoke with her. When St. Nicholas asked her how she was, her answered surprised her mother and the guest:
"I won't do it again."
She began to cry, and blurted out, "I will never do it again!"
Anna intervened and asked what "it" was. After much coaxing, Barbara, said, "I will never bake cookies for my doll again."
The mother held the daughter close and comforted her.
St. Nicholas produced a large spice cookie to give to her.
Then the story came out of Barbara's mouth with tumbling and rolling until at last she had told it all.
Nanni had loved cookies, and Barbara had wanted to bake some for her. Well, Barbara had seen her mom make cookies many times so she knew what to do.
In the barn she had made a little stove with the extra bricks that were kept there.
However, the cookies would not bake well without a proper fire. And Nanni was so hungry. Thinking of what her mom did to help the fire, she got the blue can from the house to help the fire burn. This was just like mom did. Pouring it on the fire worked just like it did for mom. Then she could put the dough on the sheet and bake the cookies for hungry Nanni. Nanni had loved the baked cookies. Then it was time for bed for Nanni so they went back to the house.
Spreading the News
All the while that Barbara had spoken, St. Nicholas had remained calm on the outside. But inside, he was jumping and ready to bolt out the door with the news he had received from the shy child.
For her part, Anna simply hugged her daughter even more and kissed her several times.
St. Nicholas gave Barbara the cookie. Then he gave her several more and announced that he needed to leave as soon as possible. Leaving behind his sack of treats and bishop's miter, he ran from the Leitner's home to home of the mayor.
The mayor whose children were much older was surprised to see the St. Nicholas visit his home. However, Mr. Silcher soon explained why he was there and how Barbara had cleared up the actual cause of the fire at the Leitner barn. The mayor who was an understanding man agreed that this news certainly changed things but he was not sure that the testimony of a child would be enough to free Matthew Leitner. After all, it could be argued that the child was prompted to tell the story.
The shepherd left the mayor's home sure that Leitner was innocent. He returned to retrieve his sack and miter and to continue his rounds to the children of the town. However, at each home, he was sure to pull aside one of the parents in order to share Barbara's story about the fire. By the next day, the town was filled with the new twist that had occurred in the Leitner case. Mr. Silcher thought to himself that if only there was a way to corroborate Barbara's story, the innocent Matthew Leitner could be freed.
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The way came very soon. The barn cleanup at Leitner's had started. The burnt hay was being removed and hauled away by two men. One of them caught sight of something in the charred remains of the barn. He stopped and went to pick it up from the ground. When the first man showed it to the second, he realized what had been found. It was the pieces of a porcelain doll. Sure enough, there were the glass eyes and parts of the porcelain face. Finding as many pieces as they could, they put them in a sack and rushed to town.
At city hall, they filled out written statements swearing that their account of what and where they had found the doll was accurate. The mayor was ecstatic and quickly sent over the reports to the court house.
Several days later, the parish priest was shaking the hand of Matthew Leitner the free man. The priest and Matthew had no trouble connecting the dots. From the book, to the prayer, to Barbara telling her story to St. Nicholas, it was clear that the Lord and St. Nicholas had come to Matthew's aid. Like he often did, St. Nicholas had worked behind the scenes to bring about justice.
Matthew was filled with joy and gratitude and promised to forever be grateful to the holy saint for freeing him from jail. Then, he purchased a new doll and went home to celebrate with his wife and daughter and to plan to rebuild his barn in order to be ready for the next growing season.
Retold from a story in The Real St. Nicholas by Louise Carus
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Feast Day: December 6th (Memorial)
Patron of children
Patron of sailors
Patron of happy marriages
Patron of pilgrims
Patron of travelers
Patron of bakers
Patron of teachers
Patron of farmers
Patron of toy makers