An Evening with St. Nick
By Philip Barnes
Prelude - The Book
Cleaning is often a tedious task for me. I can't just put things away, but I have to look at every item, every picture, and every scrap of paper. Piles of junk can become walks down memory lane. Cleaning out a storage shed or an old junk closet can send you back even farther. But there is nothing more nostalgic than clearing out your grandmother's attic. What if, while cleaning that attic, you found an old box much like this, a box that has gathered dust throughout the years and contains page after page of old newspaper clippings from Christmases long ago. And in the bottom of that box, what if there was a hand written letter titled "An Evening with St. Nick".
Chapter 1 - The Meeting
It is a cold night in Kansas City, December 24,1942. My son is just three and a half months old. The United States is in the middle of a war, and though I am starting seminary, the Lord only knows when my name will be called. We are poor, but everyone is poor. It just concerns me more now because I am a father. I work steadily around my class schedule building airplanes for the army and I pray that each plane will bear our boys home safely at the end of the day.
School has been out of session for nearly two weeks, so I have been able to put in extra work at the plant earning money we'll need since the plant was closed Wednesday, today, and will be on Christmas. It is late and I'm up alone. Iola goes to bed early now because Michael Philip will be up in the middle of the night for another feeding. It has given me some time to wrap up a few presents and set things up for breakfast tomorrow. We're having pancakes, just like my father taught me how to make.
The embers of the fire are still warm, but the flame is nearly out. The coffee in the percolator is finished. I don't drink much at night, but when the fire finally goes out it's nice to have something warm. In the kitchen I top off my cup and, as I set down the coffee pot, I hear a loud thump. A large load of snow must have finally dislodged from the roof and slid onto the porch out back. I'm definitely going to have to shovel out the car tomorrow or perhaps on Saturday since we won't be getting out on Christmas.
But it wasn't snow that had fallen off the roof after all. As I returned to the livingroom, what I saw you might not believe. There on my hearth sat an old man with a long white beard. He had a small brush and a little dustpan with which he cleaned the soot off of his bright red pants and black leather boots. His coat had a large red hood that was lined in white fur, and he paid me no mind, just tended to his business. Then without looking up, he spoke in a deep sonorous voice.
"Lowell, it is good to see you all grown up."
I didn't know what to say, and perhaps by habit I stated, "It's Dennis. I go by my middle name now. And may I ask, who are you?"
"I'm Nicholaus," and he extended his white gloved hand to me.
"You mean St. Nicholaus?"
"I deserve the title of saint no more than any of God's children who have been sanctified, still I suppose there are those who do call me St. Nicholaus. But please if you would, just call me Nicholaus."
Chapter 2 - The Newborn Gift
I invited Nicholaus to stay for a cup of coffee and to my surprise he pulled back his hood, took off his coat and sat down on the couch. The coffee was still warm and steamed as I filled my largest coffee mug. Nicholaus took a moment just to hold the cup, then began a long slow sip. The red from his cheeks and nose gradually faded as the warmth of the coffee flowed through his body.
"It has been a long time since I have visited you, Dennis." Growing older, had caused my need for Nicholaus to visit to become less. I was somewhere between ten and twelve when I realized that I was going to be just fine and Nicholaus would be better served helping those who were younger and truly in need.
I responded "That was twenty years ago now. Why come back tonight?"
"No, not for you Lowell, pardon, Dennis. Am I not right in thinking you now have a son, Michael Philip."
"Yes, Iola and I were blessed in September with our first son. I'm fortunate. He looks like his mother, red hair, freckles, and smile."
"It is to bring a special gift for Michael Philip that I have come to you today. Each parent has dreams and aspirations for his child. I try to match a newborn's first gift with those wishes." He took another sip and leaned back on the couch.
"How do you know what gift to give each newborn?"
"Why I ask the parents. It is such a joy for me to see a new generation passing on the love and wisdom that was once given to them so many years ago." He finished his coffee with one large drink, placed it on the coffee table, and leaned forward. "So, what are your hopes for little Michael, a baseball player? I have a bag full of balls. Perhaps you want him to be a scholar? I have brought some great books. Tell me your dreams."
Chapter 3 - A Difficult Gift
What Nicholaus was asking took me by surprise. Had my parents dreamed that I would be a preacher? Certainly not. Would my wish today forever put Michael on a path totally apart from his choosing? "Nicholaus, you cannot expect me to make such a decision in one evening. There are too many things to consider, too many pitfalls."
"Dennis, do not worry. You are not etching in stone your child's future. I ask only that you think about your part in the rearing of Michael. I visit too many children whose parents have neglected their duty to teach them the difference between right and wrong. I see kids who are mean and kids who are spoiled. I see kids who are rebellious and those who are faithless. I want to encourage you to not wait until it is too late to raise little Michael Philip as he ought to be raised."
"I have always had a dream for Michael, but I do not think that it is necessarily what you are asking about."
"Why not just tell me? I've heard more varied dreams than you could imagine. Perhaps your thoughts are not so far off as you might think."
"We live in a changing world, Nicholaus. I have no way of knowing how Michael might fit into that world. But wherever he goes, whatever he does, I want him to be faithful to God. Is there anyway you can grant me such a gift." Nicholaus did not move.
We sat for a moment, and I worried I had offended the old man. Then I saw a single tear run down his left cheek that had been chapped and dried from the cold. "Dennis, that is the only gift I ever wanted to give."
Chapter 4 - Nicholaus' Story
He wiped his face clean with an ornate kerchief, then looked straight at me. "Dennis, do you know why I started doing what I do?
"There sure are plenty of stories, but I can't say that I know which ones are true."
"I was a wealthy, wealthy man. I had everything that I could possibly gather to myself. I had a large mansion and I ate the best food. I felt like I owned the world. But one day the Bishop from the local parish came to the house. It was bitterly cold and the snow came up to his knees. I ushered him into the house and placed him by my fire to warm up. But before I even settled down he asked me, 'Child, are you happy?'" Nicholaus' voice began to waiver as he produced the kerchief one more time to dab his eyes.
"I told him that I was indeed happy. Then he asked, 'Are you joyful?' 'What is the difference?' I replied. 'Come with me and I will show you, but I will need one of your servants to bring a few items for me.' I was too curious, so as I grabbed my coat I had the Bishop speak with my servants about the items he would need."
"I rode with the Bishop and he assured me that the servants would not be far behind us. His small overworked horse struggled to take us into town as he hit patches of ice then puddles of mud. Slowly we traveled until we arrived at the town's large meeting hall. We disembarked from the small sledge and entered the building only to find that we were not alone"
"The hall was filled with the dregs of humanity. They were dirty, some were drunk, and all were cold. We walked slowly around the people huddled there. Small children gathered near their parents. An older man stared blankly at the wall. Misery could be seen on every face. 'How is this suppose to bring me joy?' I enquired of the Bishop. 'Patience young man, I believe I hear the bells of your horses now. Let us go outside and see what your servant has brought.'"
"We went outside, and if it was possible, it seemed warmer in the falling snow than inside the building. The servant spoke up, 'I brought what I was asked to, but I do not know if I should have without discussing it with you first.' 'Well, what have you brought?' I demanded. 'I have fire wood and blankets, and, though it was hard to convince him, your cook is now butchering one of your cows and will be here with the meat soon.'"
"My heart broke. Inside my house I had enough to care for all of these who where here and more. I turned to my servant, 'Why are you still here? Get these blankets inside. Start a fire in every fireplace. Get some water boiling.' As I reentered the hall I had noticed a change. I saw hope on the faces of the people. I saw peace sweep through families. Most of all I saw people filled with joy."
Chapter 5 - Receiving Joy
Nicholaus' face beamed as he recounted these events from his past. I motioned to rise, but Nicholaus continued his story. "The Bishop made his way over to me after the meat had arrived and was cooking on spits and boiling in stew over every fireplace. 'You have given so much to these people and they have been filled with joy. What may I give you?' The Bishop was sincere, but I thought na•ve. 'There is nothing you can give me that I do not already have.' 'You mean there is no gift, no matter how great, that you do not already possess.' 'Yes, or that I could possess if I choose to.'"
"What the Bishop would say next would change my life. 'All your wealth and prizes have not brought you Joy, but today you have seen Joy enter into this very building. When the fire is out and the food is gone many here will be hungry and cold again, but there is a Joy that does not fail. Today is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. When he was born these words were proclaimed about him. Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. . . .Glory to god in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!'
"Dennis, it was that Christmas day that I learned where real joy comes from. It was from lessons given by that Bishop that I realized faithfulness to God was the most precious thing a person could have. I determined to continue to give gifts and spread joy in the hopes that there might be one more person who would come to know the truth about where real joy comes from."
Chapter 6 - The Star
I sat mesmerized by Nicholaus' story. I did not want this evening to end. But an end must come to all good things. Nicholaus rose, grabbed his coat, and began to put it on. "Do you know Dennis that you and I are not too different?"
"No, how so?"
"Both of us want to spread the message of Gospel. You just are blessed to have the opportunity to do it every week. I am proud of you Lowell." As he said the last, he winked at me. He grabbed his large sack and headed toward the hearth. He suddenly stopped as if he had forgotten something, and simply turned his head to look at me, "Have you ever wondered why there are so many angels and stars used to decorate during Christmas time?" I shook my head no. "They are something I began using years ago. You see in the Nativity story it was the angels and the star that pointed people to Christ. I suppose I, in a small way, had hoped that they would continue to point people in that same direction even today. If you want Michael to be faithful, you be that star and point him to the Christ." With that statement he quickly reached into his bag and produced a simple wooden star and handed it to me.
I looked at that star. On it was a small tag that read to Michael Philip Barnes. I turned it over, and on the back it was signed "Nicholaus". I looked up to wish Nicholaus a good night, but when I did he was gone. I was standing alone in the dark holding a star and was full of joy.
Postlude - The Meaning
Lowell Dennis Barnes lived forty more years as a shining star for Iola his wife, Michael and Carol his children, Jennifer, Peter, Amy, Philip, Matthew, and David his grandchildren, and countless people he served in churches and as a hospital chaplain. He was laid to rest on Christmas Eve as carolers around the world sang Joy to the World, loved ones traveled far to be with families, and countless children gathered near their Christmas trees under the star to await their evening with St. Nick.
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