This story concerns a man who found a way to solve an inner conflict and in the process…
…created our tradition of Christmas giving.
As a desperately hungry boy, Nick began to sneak into people’s homes and eat their cookies and drink their milk.
The town gazette warned people about a serial cookie-and-milk thief. Victims told of the shock of invasion and being confused over the theft of something so small.
Finally, late one evening, as the boy lowered himself down from the house window of his latest prey…
…he landed in the clutches of a policeman. “Okay, my lad,” the cop said. “I know yer’re starving, I know ya come from a broken home, so I’ll let ya off. But if any more milk or cookies go missing, I’ll come after ya. Whenever ya need a hot meal, drop by the house. I’m sure my wife doesn’t want to see yer ribs sticking out, any more than I do.”
Helped by the kindness of that cop and a community that forgave him, Nick walked a straight line from that point forward. In time, that ragmuffin boy became a successful businessman in the dairy and cookie trade. Hard-working. Solid, if a bit staid. Generous with his wealth—Nick tried to lift the community that had lifted him. He was particularly proud of the home he’d established for street urchins.
But despite all that prosperity, as he entered the late stages of middle age, Nick felt dead in his life. He began looking back through the years, trying to see what he’d lost and when and how.
At such times, he often recalled those nights of his boyhood when he’d sneak into a house, quiet as a cat, and snack on cookies and milk as the residents slept.
Finally, he realized the obvious: in becoming an honest businessman, he’d killed the sly fox—the lively fox—he’d once been. After mourning that loss with tears, he fell into a deep sleep at his desk.
In short time, a clicking sound broke through the fog of his slumber. Nick found a fox outside his window, tapping its paw on a pane. Those long nails struck the glass. Click-click-click. Click-click-click.
Licking his lips with that long tongue, the fox said, “Come outside, my good friend. I am not dead. If you play and prowl with me, I will live again.”
“Sorry, but I just don’t trust you!” Nick protested. “I’m afraid you’ll ruin me.”
“Me ruin you?” the fox said, his breath making a round spot on the window. “You began to bury me long ago. Yes, you needed my cleverness a bit in business—until you became established. Then you tamped the ground down firmly over my lame body. But in so doing, you lost the fire of my fox spirit.”
“I’m sorry, I really am,” Nick said.
“Don’t worry—I’m not dead yet. But what I need to live is what you need to live: the thrill that comes from using our cunning in a grand task of secrecy and risk.”
What that surprise, Nick awoke. He looked, but found no fox at his window. Only four blank panes of black night.
Fortunately, he knew enough not to cast that dream aside—not to blame the vision on a piece of anchovy pizza. No, he immediately began journaling in the ledger book on his desk.
Several pages later, he wrote:
“After careful appraisal, I now see: having stifled the fox within, I’ve rejected a vital part of who I am. Okay, but what do I do! I don’t want to steal. I’m a philanthropist now. I love giving.
“To be truly happy, I need both aspects active in my life—the fox and the strong stable community provider. But they seem to be in conflict. How can I possibly satisfy both drives?
Nick struggled with this dilemma all that night. Fortunately, the clever fox now had enough life to pop this idea into his head:
Drawing on past expertise, he’d again sneak into houses. But instead of stealing, he’d leave behind gifts—gifts for all the townspeople. “I’ll wait ‘til winter, ‘til the darkest time of year, when people most need cheering. In the meantime, I’ll be gathering all the presents together.”
And so, on a quiet December night, as the town slept, Nick crept from house to house, hauling bags of gifts. But in his zeal, perhaps he didn’t consider all the possibilities. When the first recipients woke to find strange packages in their houses, they summoned the police.
Once again, a cop arrived to find Nick climbing down from a window—the window of the last house on his list. He had some explaining to do…
In court the next day, he pleaded his case…
…first, telling of his rough-and-tumble childhood—of how he’d been saved from a life of crime by that kind couple. He told of his vow to them: to walk the straight and narrow in life and be industrious in his labor.
“And so, I eventually became successful, despite my fair dealing,” he told the judge. “The whole town knows my story…
“But what you don’t know is: after all my years of honest hard work, I was left with the strange sense of something missing. When I saw how I’d killed a vital part of myself, I hit upon a scheme, hoping to resurrect that life. A scheme I believed would benefit all.”
So, which part of him gave that speech?—the good man of giving or the sly fox? Maybe both. In any case, his story melted everyone in the courtroom. Perhaps many felt a similar loss in their own lives.
“Well okay, Nick, since you didn’t take but only gave, I’ll let you off with a warning,” the judge said, then added with a mischievous wink, “I liked the gift you left me. Next year, an argyle sweater might be nice.”
The old white-bearded milk-and-cookie man got the message. So did the rest of the townspeople. They agreed amongst themselves to retire early the next Christmas eve and leave a window unbolted.
And because they wanted to give to Nick as he gave to them, most put out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for him. Of course, they knew his life was now full of milk and cookies. But they realized the bump in sales would help his profit margin.
By this point, you’ve probably guessed: before St. Nicolas became a saint, he was Nick, the crafty street urchin who grew into an honest businessman and philanthropist.
We can thank him for beginning, long ago, our tradition of year-end giving.
I know that’s not the story you’ve heard…
But as history becomes legend, the facts of a story become blurrier and blurrier. Often, all we have left is the basic outline. I believe we remake the story into what we want it to be. I say…
…we transformed Nick into a one-dimensional character, because we rejected the thought that someone so sunny could also have a dark side. We didn’t want to look behind that twinkle in Santa’s eye. We didn’t want to see the shadow fox. But I say…
…we need to see that shadow. By seeing Santa Nick’s shadow, we may see a bit more of our own. And having seen, we may realize we need to deal with the conflict it presents—just as Nick did.
Maybe you still prefer a more traditional Santa. Well okay, but while you’re reading ‘Twas the Night before Christmas to your kids, consider this value of the new/old version:
The tale of Nick shows how someone can flip a negative behavior to its positive side…
…without losing the excitement the negative provides.
© 2019, Michael R. Patton
sky rope poetry