St. Nicholas

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A Small Fish Story

An Irish Folk Tale

Retold by Louise Carus from The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope from Around the World

We've hunted high and low and haunted libraries—including the greatest folklore library in North America at Indiana University in Bloomington—to find more stories about St. Nicholas from the British Isles. This is the only story we've been able to locate. —LC


While St. Nicholas was generous to others, he did not lead a grand life himself. He was even once a beggar who traveled all over the country with only the clothes on his back, his staff, and an old wooden pail. One day, he came to a little town by the sea where almost no one was willing to help him. All day he stood on the street, asking for alms. But by the time evening fell, only three people had taken pity on him: a fisherman, a woman, and a priest. Strangely enough, each of them had given him the same thing—not a coin, but a small fish.

He put all three fish in his pail filled with water and walked on until he came to a house where a very poor widow lived with her children.

"Begging your pardon, madam, but might a person stay here overnight?"

"To be sure," the widow answered wearily, "but we only have water soup and a crust of bread for supper."

St Nicholas holding large fish
Designer: Paul Bolinger
Kurt Adler Collection
St Nicholas Center Collection

"Supper won't be a problem! Look here: I have three fish. You can fry them and we and the children will all eat them together."

The widow looked doubtfully into the beggar's pail. She had no way of knowing the three little fish had been growing in there. By the time she saw them, they had become quite large.

"What a joy," the woman cried. I haven't seen such big fish for a long time, not even at the market!"

One fish, two fish, three fish do I see,
Plenty for my children and enough for me!

She happily lit a fire and began to cook the fish over the glowing coals.

While she was about her work, the Saint asked, "Do you have a pail?"

"Yes, indeed I do."

"I'll thank you to fill it with water and bring it to me." The woman did as he asked. Soon the fish were ready to eat. And how delicious they were! The widow and her children were so hungry they left nothing but the bones, Nicholas said, "Don't throw those bones away. Give them to me."

The children and their mother looked at one another in surprise. "What is he up to?" they whispered. But they were so grateful for a good meal at last that they didn't question Nicholas.

After they had eaten, the family lay the bones of all three fish on a plate. Nicholas picked up the bones by the tail and threw them into the widow's pail.

Again everyone was surprised. "Why is he doing that?" they wondered.

Then as the widow was about to carry the pail outside to empty it, she noticed three live fish swimming in the water! "What?" she gasped. "How could that be?"

One fish, two fish, three fish do I see,
Plenty for my children and enough for me!

Who knew where the fish came from but Nicholas, and by that time he was sound asleep.

The next morning, the good Saint said, "Please fix these fish for breakfast."

The woman gladly did so, and once again everyone had enough to eat.

When they were finished, again Nicholas said, "Bring me the pail and give me the bones." Then he threw them into the water and continued, "You must always do this. That way, you will always have fish and you and your children won't be hungry any more."

Then the Saint swung his wooden pail over the end of his staff, said goodbye, and walked off down the road.

The widow and her children never saw St. Nicholas again, but they lived well for a long time. At last, one day the mother left a single child alone at home while she and the others went to visit relatives. The child at home got hungry, so he tiptoed over to the widow's pail and looked in:

One fish, two fish, three fish do I see,
Enough for the others and plenty for me!

With that, he scooped out one of the fish and fried it for himself. Afraid that his mother would find out and scold him, he threw the bones away.

When the widow returned, the first thing she did was go to the pail to prepare dinner.

One fish, two fish, thr——

But now there were not three fish swimming in the water—there were only two. And from then on, that had to be plenty enough for all of them!


Excerpt from The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World, by Louise Carus, editor and translator, copyright © 2002. Reprinted by permission of Quest Books/The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois.

This delightful collection of thirty St. Nicholas stories includes many folktales that are not well-known. One story may be read each day during Advent or one or two could be selected for St. Nicholas Day. Other information and recipes are also included. Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.

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