Santa Claus
re-told by
Jo Hewlett

    Long ago there lived a young man called Niclaus. He was born in Lycia, in the town of Patara, in the country that is nowadays called Turkey. When he was six his family went to live in Russia.

    He was a very cheerful and happy young man and why shouldn’t he be? For he was healthy and handsome and his parents were rich and indulgent. He was a good hearted man and never did an unkind action, on the other hand it must be said that he did not go very far out of his way to do a kind one.

    There was no need for Niclaus to work but he had many friends and passed his days cheerfully enough. He rode his horses and raced his sled across the snow. He skied down the mountainsides and went hunting bear with his friends. In the evenings they would meet for parties or sometimes just for a chat around the fireside.

    One bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Niclaus, or Claus as his friends usually called him for short, found himself alone several miles from where he lived. His friends had all gone on to a party but Claus had promised to come home early as his old grandmother, whom he dearly loved, was coming for Christmas, and he wanted to be home to greet her. His friends offered to drive him home but he didn't want to spoil their fun. "It is a beautiful clear night," said Claus, looking up at the starry heavens. "A walk will do me good." And wrapping his fur muffler round him, tucking his hands into the deep warm pockets of his coat he set off briskly for home. It seemed quite strange to him to be all alone in the dark. He was so used to having his friends around him. The noise of the wind in the trees sounded like someone in pain and Claus shivered in the bitter cold in spite of his expensive fur coat. He found himself in a part of the city that was unfamiliar. The streets were mean and narrow, very different from the boulevard where he lived. The houses were small and huddled together as if they too were trying to keep warm. Most of them were in darkness but here and there a light shone out from one of the small windows. Claus came to a crossroads and paused to consider his best way home. There was one of these lighted windows quite low down near his shoulder, and turning he couldn't resist looking inside. He saw a small bare room with no furniture except an iron bedstead. On this a woman and a child were sitting side by side. The woman had her arm around the girl and they both appeared distressed.

    Claus was a kind-hearted lad and liked to believe that everyone in the world was as happy as he and his friends. The glass in the window was broken in one corner and Claus found he could quite easily hear what they were saying. The girl was talking in a voice that was meant to be bright and cheerful but occasional sobs broke through.
    "Oh, mother", she said. "Please don't worry about me. I shall be perfectly alright. I am sure Mr Niakov will be a good kind employer. I shall live in a great beautiful house with fires in every room."
She shivered and pulled her skimpy shawl around her shoulders, 
    “and I will make lots and lots of money and send it home for you and the little ones."

    “Oh my dear child," said her mother hugging her tightly, “I can't bear to think of you going so far from home. If your father were not so sick, or if I could find work myself, I would do anything to keep you with us… Oh dear, I don’t know what to do for the best.”

    Claus had listened to this conversation with growing distress. He knew Alexei Niakov very well. He was a great fat bullying man. His own wife and daughters were terrified of him and Claus could imagine that the life of a servant girl in his house would be a far from happy one. The mother was talking again, her words coming clearly through the broken window.
    "I have prayed and prayed for something to happen", she said. "For some miracle to stop you going away. If only the good God would hear my prayer."

    Claus stood on the pavement in the cold black night and thought. "Why didn't the good God grant the prayer of this poor woman. Why should her family be broken up and that poor skinny child have to go and work for that fat pig Niakov. Why couldn't the good God work a miracle just this once?"

    Suddenly a perfectly extraordinary thought struck Claus - perhaps God had worked a miracle. Perhaps the miracle was him - Claus. He had been standing at the open window at exactly the right moment, perhaps God expected him to do something - but what?

    Hurrying through the dark streets Claus set off once more for home his head buzzing with ideas. He let himself in and was at once greeted by his grandmother. The rest of the evening he was engaged in family affairs, exchanging presents with all his relations and the house was full of merriment and happy laughter.

    At last, long after midnight they all went upstairs to their rooms, promising to rise early for church on Christmas morning. All the rest of the family went to bed, but Claus had other plans. From under his bed he pulled a heavy wooden chest in which he had kept his most precious possessions since he had been a small boy. He started to hunt through, looking for something suitable to take to the woman and her sad young daughter. He had no cash and there would be no banks open at that time of night for him to get some,but surely there was something in the chest that would do? He took out his precious gun and his skates and the toy trains he had played with as a little boy. Some valuable leather-bound books and an old teddy-bear with one ear, and at the very bottom, he found three solid gold balls which had been given to him for a christening present by his Godfather who was a goldsmith.

    "Just the thing," thought Claus joyfully and picking them up he stuffed them into the pocket of his coat. He put on an extra pair of gloves and his best fur hunting boots and set off once more for the little house in the town. It was colder than ever and Claus found it quite painful to breathe. He wrapped his muffler round his face and pulled his fur hat down over his ears. As Claus walked along it started to snow and the bitter wind seemed to be searching out any tiny gaps in his clothing,but he battled on. when at last he arrived back at the same broken window, everything inside was dark. He could just distinguish the outline of the old iron bedstead. Very carefully Claus pushed up the window frame, the catch had long since broken and as there was nothing to steal no-one had troubled to repair it. Claus put one foot over the windowsill and eased himself quietly into the room. There was no carpet on the floor and he tiptoed over the bare boards to where the girl lay asleep. He took one of the gold balls from his pocket. It was about the size of a tennis ball and very heavy. Claus knew that it was worth more money than the family would earn in many years of hard work.

    He laid it carefully on the foot of the bed, near where the girl’s skinny toes made a little white hill in the bedspread and as quietly as before, he slipped out of the window and pushed the frame back down.

    Claus felt an extraordinary warm glow, which seemed to start somewhere near his heart and spread throughout his body. He felt a great lump in his throat and found to his amazement that tears of happiness were trickling down his cheeks. Never in his thoughtless young life had he experienced such a marvellous sensation. The wind and the snow no longer bothered him at all and he did not feel in the least sleepy. Turning away from the home he headed onwards down the mean streets of the city wondering, whether perhaps God had any more miracles for him. As he went he kept his eyes open for broken windows and about half a mile further on he found one. 

    The room inside was even smaller and more miserable than the other. There was no bed, but a crippled man lay asleep in a dilapidated armchair, his crutches on the floor beside him. In a corner on a pile of rags an emaciated looking boy was sleeping, hugging a large black dog for warmth. The dog was not asleep and Claus saw its great golden eyes fixed on him as he gently levered up the window. As he came in the dog raised his lip and a deep growl rumbled in his throat. Claus paused, one leg in and one out, wondering what to do. As the dog made no move he very gently eased his other leg into the room. The dog growled again and in the half light Clause could see the hair standing up in a thick ridge on the back of his neck. He suddenly remembered a biscuit in his pocket and bringing this out he offered it to the dog with a ingratiating smile. 

    The dogs ears came up and the ridge of hair settled back on to his neck. His black nose quivered at the delightful and unusual smell. Slipping out of the arms of the sleeping boy it cautiously approached the visitor and accepted the biscuit.

    Quickly, before the dog could change its mind and sink its strong white teeth into his ankle, Claus brought another golden ball from his pocket and laid it in the lap of the sleeping man. The boy groaned a little and stretched out his arms and the dog slid back into his warm sleeping place. Claus slipped out of the window and quietly closed it. He had one ball left. He walked on and found himself by now in the outskirts of the city. A great black building loomed up on his left and he was surprised to see that there was still a light on in the downstairs window. Inside he could see a man and a woman sitting at a table with many books and papers piled upon it. The window was well made and not broken.

    "If this is my third miracle" thought Claus to himself, "How on earth am I to find out what is going on?"
At that very moment as though in answer to his prayer the woman came across and threw open the window. Claus only just darted back into the shadows in time not to be seen. The woman stared out into the cold dark night.
    “It's no good," she said to the man. "They are not coming."
The man came and stood beside her.
    ”It really is too bad," he said. "They promised faithfully to send some money for the children's Christmas dinner. How on earth do they expect us to feed fifty orphans on the money they provide on ordinary days, let alone Christmas?"
    "If you ask me," said the woman bitterly; "The governors spend most of the orphans money on their own Christmas dinners. I never really believed they would send anything over."
    "Come on," said the man, "Let us go and search the kitchens. Whatever is there will have to do. There is bread. and perhaps something we can make soup from. At least the children are so used to disappointments they will hardly be surprised that there is no Christmas dinner."

    He closed the window and they left the room. Claus looked about him and wondered how to deliver the last golden ball. In the moon-light he could see an ancient vine growing up the side of the building and on the roof he could make out the solid square outline of a large chimney. Looking through the window he saw an empty fire-place, it looked cold and cheerless in the gloomy room. Hardly stopping to think, he started to climb the vine and in no time was feeling his way round the chimney. By stretching out his arm he was just able to drop the golden ball into the square black hole. He heard a thump and hoped that it had not lodged on some shelf in the dark interior of the chimney. Scrambling down the vine again, he peered in at the lighted window. The golden ball had rolled out into the middle of the room. As he watched, the man and the woman came back through the door and stared in amazement at the astonishing sight. He didn't wait for any more but darted off quickly down the dark path towards the road with a light heart and empty pockets.

    Claus‘ Christmas Eve adventure had a tremendous effect upon him. Although in many ways he was still the cheerful light-hearted lad that he had always been, he started to think much more deeply about his life and to worry about those people so
much less fortunate than himself. And when, a couple of years later he told his family and friends that he had decided to become a priest, they were not so terribly surprised.

    Claus went away to University in St Petersberg, to train to be a priest and then he came home and spent many happy years looking after the people of his city. Every Christmas Eve he would repeat his adventure. He would buy golden balls at the goldsmith, then after dark when the whole city was asleep, he would go quietly round the empty streets, leaving a golden ball here and there where it seemed most deeply needed.

    After many years when Claus was quite an old man with a long white beard, he was made Bishop of Myra but even then he continued his Christmas Eve excursions. He could sometimes be seen, dressed in his Bishop's robes, a long red gown and hood, trimmed with white fur slipping quietly round some dark corner at night engaged in his favourite pastime. In fact many poor people would hopefully leave their windows open just a little, in case he might call.

    At last the time came for Claus to be called to his reward in heaven and he was so dreadfully missed by all the people who loved him that quite soon the Holy Church proclaimed him to be a saint. So he became Saint Niclaus but the common people always called him Santa Claus for short.

    His yearly presents were so sadly missed that many other people took up the same idea and secretly left each other presents at Christmas, particularly for the children. And when they were asked where the presents had come from, they would smile and say "Santa Claus left them." This habit has gradually spread all over the whole world. In some countries children leave stockings at the end of their bed and in some they leave wooden clogs by the fire-place or under the Christmas tree for Santa Claus to fill. And on almost every Christmas tree, if you look carefully among the tinsel and presents and coloured lights, you will find at least one plain golden ball hung there in memory of Santa Claus.