by Father Victor Brown, OP
The story was told to me by Fr. Roger Lott, O.S.B., of St. Bernard Abbey, Cullman, Alabama. He was one of the GI's who organized the gifts for the Dutch children. When he first returned from the European war theater, we were at Spring Hill College, Mobile, Alabama, together.
The story took place in 1944 in the southern part of the Netherlands, which had been liberated first. Ten days later the Nazis launched the terrible "Battle of the Bulge."
Vintage Belgian postcard
St Nicholas Center Collection
When I was in college and the boys and men were returning home from the war zones of Europe and the Pacific, I met a man who had served in the Army during the last terrible winter (1944/45) in Europe. On December 6, he and his outfit were encamped just outside a little town in southern Holland which had been liberated from the Nazis. But after almost five years of Nazi occupation and war, the people of Holland had been reduced to near-starvation and they were living in abject poverty and a lack of nearly all material that makes life liveable. Some of the American soldiers knew of the traditional Dutch custom of having the children put their shoes outside the door, and finding them filled with goodies on Saint Nicholas morning.
The soldiers mentioned this to some of the local Hollanders, and were told PLEASE not to mention that to the children, since they had nothing with which to fill the shoes of the hopeful children. They had simply never told their little ones about Saint Nicholas at all.
The soldiers to whom this was told went back to their outfit and spread the word. "Can we do something to help the parents in the little town bring back the lovely tradition of Saint Nicholas?" The commanding officer gave his okay; the cooks could bake lots of cookies, many of the men were willing to give up the oranges and apples supplied by the mess hall, and the men in the machine shops were able to come up with home-made toys fashioned from unusable munitions, jerry-cans, mess kits, canteens, and so on. So the G.I.'s passed the word among the villagers: tell the kids about Saint Nicholas. Have them put their shoes outside the door the night before. Let’s bring back a ray of light and happiness after the hell of occupation and war.
Excitement and anticipation ran high that night in the little Dutch village. And the next morning, the shoes outside the doors were filled and surrounded with apples and oranges, chocolate, hard candies, and such toys as some clever metal-workers and whittlers could produce from the instruments of war.
Sacred Scripture speaks of people in the Messianic kingdom beating their swords into plowshares. Well, in this case they converted their armaments into toys to make the eyes of children shine. And why not? Our Lord Jesus Christ was a little boy one time.
back to the Netherlands
Told by Fr. Victor Brown, OP, Fr. Victor Brown’s Catholic Daily Message, December 6, 2007. Used by permission.