On St. Nicholas Day, 1944, U.S. Army Corporal Richard Brookins was stationed with the 112th Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division in the tiny village of Wiltz, Luxembourg, which the Allies had just liberated from Nazi control.
For centuries, the children of Wiltz had celebrated the holiday by putting their shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with candies and treats, but when the Nazis conquered the village in 1940, they banned the celebration altogether. For four years, there was no St. Nicholas Day.
But that didn't sit well with Brookins and his friend, fellow Colonel Harry Stutz.
“I think we should give this town a Christmas party, A St. Nicholas Day," the St. Nicholas Center quotes Stutz as telling Brookins a few days before Thanksgiving, 1944. "A man dressed as St. Nick paraded through the town and gave candy to the kids. Kids here haven’t celebrated St. Nicholas Day for nearly five years because of the war. Some of them have never seen St. Nick at all."
Stutz and Brookins got to work, collecting chocolate and other sweets from their company's rations and even getting donations from soldiers out of their Christmas gifts from home. They talked with a local priest, who invited the entire town to the party they planned for St. Nicholas Day.
There was just one problem: Who would play St. Nicholas?
"You, Dick!" Stutz said to Brookins. "You're tall and skinny and would fit in the costume!"
That costume was the priest's robes and a bishop's miter with a shepherd's staff and a thick beard made out of rope. Brookins wasn't convinced he could pull it off since he had never even played Santa Claus before and had no idea how St. Nicholas was supposed to act. Still, when Stutz told him the children of Wiltz were counting on him, Brookins agreed and dressed as St. Nicholas. Two girls from the village dressed as angels and, when the time came, the three of them hopped in an army jeep and drove slowly through the streets of the village.
Children lined the streets and cheered as St. Nick and his angel helpers drove past and led them to the town's castle for their St. Nicholas party. As the children sang songs and performed skits for St. Nick, soldiers from the 112th Regiment handed out candy and nuns from the local convent made hot cocoa from the GIs' melted-down chocolate bars. Brookins sat in the seat of honor and, one by one, the children came up to sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for St. Nicholas Day. Even though Brookins couldn't understand them, he smiled and hugged and kissed each one on the forehead or cheek and gave them a St. Nicholas Day that they would always remember.
In fact, decades later, in 1977, when the village of Wiltz was preparing to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its rebuilding after the war, it still remembered its American St. Nicholas.
Brookins had gone home to Rochester, New York, gone to work at the phone company and raised a family when out of the blue he received a call from someone named Frank McClelland, a fellow veteran of the 128th. The two didn't know each other during their service, but after the war ended, McClelland had gone back to Wiltz a number of times. And each time, people there asked him to find the American St. Nicholas. He did.
A short time later, Brookins received a letter from Wiltz, asking him if he would come back that December for St. Nicholas Day.
"It is very special and we will celebrate in December on Saint Nicholas Day," the letter read. "And it would be an honor to have the very first American Saint Nicholas there."
So Brookins went back and again played St. Nicholas, this time to thousands of people who lined the streets and cheered wildly as his jeep passed by.
And he kept coming back, and kept playing St. Nicholas, at the 50th anniversary in 1994, at the 60th anniversary in 2004, and at the 65th anniversary in 2009 at the age of 87. In 2016, Luxembourg gave Brookins its prestigious Military Medal--a high honor whose other recipients included Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.
Richard Brookins, the American St. Nicholas, was a national hero whose kindness and generosity inspired thousands and gave the gift of Christmas to children who desperately needed it. Brookins passed away in 2018 at the age of 97, but the gift he gave echoes through history.
He was and always will be the American St. Nicholas--an enduring symbol of the true spirit and meaning of Christmas itself.