St. Nicholas

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Three Scholars: Another Nicholas Story

retold by John Coakley, Feakes Professor of Church History, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey

This is really a retelling of a Nicholas story; a narrator reads and actors (if I can use the term broadly) essentially pantomime them. This started at the seminary Christmas dinner about 15 years ago, with "Three Daughters," as a substitute for a Santa Claus visit; we passed out gifts at the end of the play. This caught on, and was done year after year, often with faculty playing the daughters (and a bit of a world-turned-upside-down feeling), and a lot of broad humor. "Three scholars" requires more complicated props (a pickle barrel that opens).

Comic St Nicolas, France
Postcard, ca 1950, France
St Nicholas Center Collection

Once there were three scholars who travelled far and wide, in search of books and ideas. Books and ideas interested them so much, in fact, that they usually didn't pay attention to the things around them. And so, late one cold winter afternoon in a strange country on a lonely road with their cases and packs full of books, they looked around and realized they were lost. As night closed in, they began to fear that they would have no place to sleep. Then they saw a light in the distance. To their relief, it proved to be the light of an inn.

The innkeepers—a husband and wife—appeared at the door of the inn as the scholars approached it. Now this husband and wife were having a hard time. They owed a lot of money to the bank, which was soon going to take their inn away from them, if they didn't pay. By the light, they could see the big cases and packs of the travelers. "These are wealthy merchants carrying many things to sell," the couple thought, and they smiled nervously at each other. Now you may think that they smiled because they wanted the money the scholars would pay them to stay overnight. But I am sorry to say that they needed more money than that.

The innkeepers welcomed the scholars. They offered them something to eat. "While it's cooking," said the husband, "you can go freshen up. Just leave your luggage here; I'll take care of it later. To get to your room, go through this hallway that looks like a barrel."

If the scholars had been alert, they would have noticed that the hallway that looked like a barrel was a barrel—a pickle barrel, in fact. But they had never paid much attention to hallways, or barrels for that matter, so they stumbled on in—at which point the husband quickly put the lid on that barrel, and hammered it shut.

The wife had watched from the kitchen doorway. Now she hurried back to her husband's side. "We'll figure out what to do with them tomorrow," she said. "For now, let's take their luggage and sell it."

But just as the husband and wife were about to take the luggage, a knock came at the door. They didn't like being interrupted, but being innkeepers, they had to open it. To make matters worse, who should be standing there but Nicholas the bishop! They respected Nicholas. They knew that he would not approve of anything like shutting scholars in a pickle barrel; and suddenly their consciences began to bother them. But they didn't say anything.

Nicholas sat down and asked the couple about their troubles. "Have you started paying your debts?" he asked. Noticing the luggage, he said, "I see business must be getting better." The husband and wife smiled thinly. The wife changed the subject: "Would you like something to eat?" she asked. "Thank you," said Nicholas.

But then as the husband and wife hurried off to the kitchen, Nicholas added, "I'd like a pickle, please."

The husband and wife stopped in their tracks. They turned slowly around to Nicholas. "I'm sorry," said the wife, her eyes cast down. "We don't have any pickles."

But Nicholas pointed to the barrel. "Then what is in there?" he asked.

As you may imagine, it took the couple a moment to think of an answer to that question. They did think of something, I am sure, but I don't know it was. For before they could open their mouths, Nicholas stood up and said with a frown: "I'll tell you what is in the pickle barrel: three scholars, whom you have robbed. Or rather, they were in the barrel." And at that moment, as Nicholas raised his staff, the lid flew off and the three scholars stumbled out, dizzy from the vinegar fumes, though only slightly dizzier than usual.

At first, the husband and wife were angry at Nicholas. But then, as he made them tell him what they had done and why, they began to feel very sorry. They asked forgiveness from the scholars, who weren't quite sure what had happened; and they did their best to make the scholars comfortable for the night. Then the couple asked Nicholas if he would help them find a better way to pay their debts—which he did, by helping them start a catering business on the side, specializing in pickles. In the years that followed, they often shuddered to think what they might have done without him. He had shown his care not only for the scholars but for the couple as well. He had given them a great gift.

And now we'd like the children here to be Nicholas, each for a moment: for our Nicholas is going to give each of you a chance to put on his stole, and give a gift.


By John Coakley, Feakes Professor of Church History, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, Reformed Church in America, New Brunswick, New Jersey Used by permission.

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