And this is how the story goes:
It was 1944 in the small Luxembourg town of Wiltz. The war had taken a heavy toll as Wiltz had been a center of resistance and suffered brutal reprisals. People were shot in the town square and men were forced into the German army or sent to concentration camps. The German occupation lasted four years before the Germans pulled out in September 1944. After the town’s liberation Allied soldiers rotated through Wiltz for R&R (rest and recuperation).
The 112th Regiment, part of the 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania National Guard (known as the Keystone Division), had been sent to relieve troops battling to retake Huertgen Forest. After sustaining heavy casualties they were sent to regroup and rest in Wiltz. The people there had very little and had not been able to celebrate Christmas or anything else during the years of occupation.
A few days before Thanksgiving Corporal Harry Stutz told his buddy, Corporal Richard Brookins, “I think we should give this town a Christmas party, A St. Nicholas Day. For hundreds of years here in Wiltz, they had a celebration on the fifth of December, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. 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.”
Harry talked to the local priest, Father Wolffe, who invited all the townspeople. The soldiers donated all the candy and chocolate from their rations and even some of their gifts from home. The field kitchen would make donuts and bake cakes for the party.
Who would be St. Nicholas? Harry said, “You, Dick! You’re tall, like Father Wolffe. You can wear his fancy robes and a bishop’s hat.” Twenty-two year-old Dick wasn’t so sure—he’d never even played Santa Claus. “I didn’t know who Saint Nicholas was, so I didn’t know what he did, and I didn’t want to spoil it for the kids.” “You’ve got to do it,” Harry said, “for the kids of Wiltz.” So, Dick agreed, yes, for the kids, but really for everyone, too.
In the afternoon of December 5th, Dick was taken up to Wiltz Castle, home to a convent school. Nuns helped him dress in Father Wolffe’s vestments—cassock, surplice, and a cape, high in the front, but making a train behind him. A rope beard tied on with a ribbon and topped by a bishop’s miter completed the costume.
Two little girls, dressed in white with angel wings, were St. Nicholas’ angel helpers. St. Nicholas sat with his angels in the back of a jeep, ready to go to the town square. Father Wolffe made the sign of the cross over them, giving a blessing, “May God and the spirit of Saint Nicolas be with you.”
Women and children lined the streets—the only men present were men from the 28th Division. A soldier played the guitar while children sang and danced. When they saw Saint Nicolas, everyone cheered.
Children’s faces glowed with excitement and joy. The new American St. Nicolas spoke to each child in German, asking their names and offering treats. Walking about as bishop, he made the sign of the cross, blessing children as he passed. After about 40 minutes, the entourage climbed back in the jeep to drive up to the castle, where more children waited.
Saint Nicholas blessed the children at the castle, then, with his angels carrying his train, he was escorted to a large chair inside the castle. Christmas Committee GI's were at tables, handing out treats, while the nuns served hot chocolate made from the soldiers’ melted chocolate bars.
Everyone settled down and songs, dances and skits entertained and honored Saint Nicolas. Next, children lined up to talk to St. Nicholas, sit on his knee and tell him what they wanted for St. Nicolas Day. St. Nicholas nodded wisely, repeated some words such that anyone would think he really understood. He kissed children on the cheek or forehead, patted them on the head or chucked them under the chin, before turning to the next child.
After the last child was with Saint Nicholas, the Mother Superior thanked Saint Nicolas, saying, “The children are very happy. They will remember, as will we.” The saint thanked his two angels, and left as the last song was sung. He quickly took off the robes so the priest could get to Mass, and the celebration was over.
It was the best St. Nicholas Day in years.
The "American Saint-Nick" returned as Kleeschen to Wiltz in 1977, 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014.
He passed away on October 11, 2018 at age 96.
Richard Brookins’ story tells us that kindness can bring joy in even the darkest times and forge lasting friendships and gratitude. We honor this man who brought the true spirit of St. Nicholas in 1944 and beyond.
This tradition has been kept alive for the past 75 years with the help of the organisation "Oeuvre St. Nicolas", based in Wiltz.
Tim Gray, WWII Foundation, produced a short film on the "creation" of the American Saint-Nick in Wiltz. Click the image to view the video.
Peter Lion wrote a book on this particular story. Click the picture to purchase it.