Up on the Housetop a Long Time Ago

Teddy and Nonna always wanted to live by the beach. Their home overlooked the Mediterranean and on clear days you could see in the distance some of the islands that made up their native Greece. Nonna became pregnant for the first time and soon they welcomed an infant son which they named Nikolaos or Nicky for short. Teddy’s business was good and the young family became quite wealthy.

When Nicky was 9, the plague swept through their community and neither his father or mother were spared. Nonna’s brother was a priest and he took young Nicky in. Nicky loved the church and wanted to be a priest just like his uncle was. When he was a young man, he realized his dream and entered the priesthood. The Church sent him to Myra in Turkey to be a priest in the only church for miles around. The village of Myra was also on the sea and Nicky loved to sail and fish in the blue Mediterranean. Nicky had given his vow of poverty and no one in village was aware of his inherited wealth.

Like most villages, Myra had some pretty rich people, including Nicky as well as desperately poor people struggling to get by. Among the poorest of the poor was a family on the outskirts of town, a widower and his three daughters aged 13 through 15. The widower and his daughters lived in a sod covered shanty built up against a low hill. The widower had gotten himself deeply in debt to a “businessman” who ran houses of prostitution along the coast. To make matters worse, the widower had no way to make a proper dowry for his girls. In that part of the world, a girl became of age when she reached 16. The widower’s oldest daughter would turn 16 during the winter solstice and that was only a few weeks away. The “businessman” had a nifty idea for the widower. When the oldest turned 16, the “businessman” would take her and erase a third of the debt. What to do? What to do?

The widower went to Church for confession. Behind the ornate screen he talked to the only priest in town, Nicky. He wanted to know how to pray, how to ask God to help him in this terrible predicament. His oldest daughter would turn 16 tomorrow. He cried and cried as he returned home with no clear answer except prayer. 

As was their family custom, each night the widower’s three young girls would leave their outdoor shoes at the front doorstep of their home and put on cloth slippers while inside the house. Late in the evening, when all was quiet, Nicky quietly walked up to the doorstep and put a small leather bag of gold coins into the largest of the girl’s shoes. He then retreated to his church without awakening anyone and went to bed.

The next morning, the girls came outside to put their shoes on. The oldest felt a lump in one of her shoes and discovered the small leather bag. The three girls ran to their father and showed him the bag. He was overjoyed.

When the “businessman” came around to see the widower, he was surprised when the widower handed him a third of what he owed. The rest of the gold in the bag would be a dowry for the oldest girl. The “businessman” was surprised but not disappointed. After all the second daughter was prettier than the oldest and the youngest was prettiest of them all. He could wait a year.

The oldest daughter was able to marry a fine young farmer who lived in the next valley to the north. The two remaining girls looked with envy on their older sister who found the gift in her shoe.

The seasons came and went. It was time for the second daughter to turn 16. The “businessman” knew the widower was as poor as ever and would never be able to pay off another third of his debt. The “businessman” slept soundly, knowing that tomorrow he would have a new girl for his “business”.

When the morning came, the two remaining daughters came outside to start the day. Wonder of wonders! There was another small leather bag just like last year. The widower heard the joyful shouting and again another daughter would have a dowry.

When the “businessman” came by to collect, the girls excitedly told him about the miracle of finding a bag of coins just like last year. The widower took him aside and paid off his second third. The “businessman” mumbled to himself that next year there wouldn’t be any third bag of gold coins.

When the youngest girl, who now lived alone with her father, came upon the eve of her 16th birthday, the “businessman” was ready. When it became dark and all were asleep, the “businessman” went to the now-famous doorstep. There on the doorstep were the small shoes of the youngest daughter and the larger men’s boots of the widower. The “businessman” sat down to wait and guard the shoes. If anyone was going to get a bag of gold coins and a fresh young girl it was going to be him.

That night, Nicky walked towards the widower’s sod shanty in the dark and then stopped when he saw in the distance that the shoes had someone guarding them. He quietly turned to the left and walked behind the sod shanty and over the hill supporting it. He silently crawled over the sod roof until he got to the chimney. It felt cold. Any fire that had been in it would be out by now. Nicky reached into his pocket and decided the only way was to drop the leather bag down the chimney. Surely the widower or the daughter would find it and yet another girl would be saved.

What Nicky didn’t know was that the third daughter washed out her stockings each night and dried them over the warm coals of the fireplace. Down the leather bag went, brushing against one side of the chimney and finally landing right in one of the youngest daughter’s stockings.

Nicky never told anyone about the three girls or the three bags of gold coins for many years and even then he only told the old widower when reading him his last rites. By that time his generosity with the young children of his church was quite well known.

When Nicky finally passed away, the people of Myra were heartbroken. They petitioned the Church in Rome to consider Nicky for sainthood. People came forward and swore to the many miraculous things he had done in his lifetime. The Church agreed and he became Saint Nicholas.

To this day children put up their stockings by the chimney in hopes that Saint Nicholas, now Santa Claus, will visit them.

Nikolaos of Myra lived from the year 270 a.d. to the date of his death on December 6, 343 a.d.   There are so many stories and legends about him and this story is an amalgam of  a number of them.  We are now in the political season with debates, name calling, insults and $10,000 bets. It would surely be nice if we could just stop for a few days and let Mary have her baby in the manger. Miracles do happen.