St. Nicholas and the Children
A Canadian tale
retold by Eva Martin
Canadian folklorist Cyrus MacMillan collected this story in the early 20th century. Canadian settlers’ oral tradition drew on their European background, in this case French, adapting it to their new environment. The forest became a prominent setting, as it was deep and mysterious, full of frightening creatures, and posed a constant threat to settlers.
A long time ago, deep in the forest far to the north, there lived two little children, a little boy named Pierre and a little girl named Estelle. Their parents died when they were very young, and their old grandmother was left to look after them. The grandmother was very poor and her hut was plain, but she did the best she could for them.
All went well in the summer, for there were berries to be picked and fresh eggs from the birds of the air and fish from the streams nearby, and they dug roots out of the earth. But when autumn came and the winds blew cold, the berries withered and fell, the birds flew south, the streams froze over and the ground was too hard to dig up roots. Soon there was nothing for the grandmother and the children to eat.
The grandmother was very tired from working so hard all summer and she became frail and weak. She knew that if she were to die the children would surely die, too. She could only become strong again if she had some broth made from fresh meat. The children worried to see their grandmother wasting away, so one day they decided to set out by themselves to find the nearest village where they could buy meat to make the broth.
For many hours they walked through the forest over the thick covering of snow that hid the ground. Pierre noticed that the holly-berries were blooming and that mistletoe hung from the trees. He was excited because he knew that St. Nicholas would soon be coming. Rabbits and other small animals hopped through the snow, and the chickadees chirped here and there.
A little while later the children came to a rough hut made of spruce boughs. There in the sunshine sat an old man with kind, twinkling blue eyes and a wrinkled, leathery face. He was carving willow whistles. The chips flew as he carved, and the pile of whistles grew at his feet. The children watched him for a long time before he noticed they were there.
Suddenly he looked up and saw them. “What are you two doing alone in the forest and so far from home?” he asked.
“We are looking for a village,” they replied, “where we could buy meat to make broth for our grandmother who is very ill. She may die if we don’t find meat to make some broth.”
The old man gazed at them thoughtfully for a long time, and then he said, “In a village not far from here there is a butcher shop, but it is owned by a very wicked butcher. Often children venture into the shop to buy meat and they never come out.”
Pierre and Estelle were very frightened by these words and they shivered at the thought of the wicked butcher.
The old man went on with his carving. “Perhaps I can help you,” he said. “Take one of these willow whistles. They are magical. One blast from a child in danger will bring help right away. I am making them for St. Nicholas to deliver to all good children on Christmas Eve. Surely he would not mind if you received yours a little early. Go to the butcher’s shop and when you get there, blow a long loud blast upon the whistle and St. Nicholas will come to help you.
Though the children were still very frightened, they took the whistle and went on their way. They walked and walked until it began to be dark, and as the sun set, the air became cold. At last they came to the village. And there before them was the butcher’s shop. The light shining from the shop windows was warm and inviting. It didn’t appear frightening at all. They crept up close and looked in the window. Long strings of sausages hung from the ceiling, there were plump turkeys ready to cook and bins of apples and pumpkins. The warm glow from the fireplace within was tempting and the children opened the door to go in.
But, just in time, they remembered the old man’s words. Pierre blew a long sharp blast on the willow whistle so that St. Nicholas would know that there were children in danger. Then Pierre and Estelle entered the shop, and there was the butcher, pleased as punch to see them. Such a welcome he gave them. He sat them down by the fire and fed them until they were bursting. When the children were warm and comfortable, the butcher said, “Now, my friends, what brings you here?”
“We have come to buy meat to make our grandmother some broth, for she is very ill.”
“Goodness,” said the butcher. “I have lots of meat to sell.”
Now the butcher was a very wicked man who worked with the local giant. The giant hunted and killed game for the butcher to sell in his shop and in return the butcher pickled little children as a delicacy for the giant to eat. The giant loved the sweet, delicate flesh of pickled children.
When the butcher looked at the two little ones sitting in his shop, he was overjoyed, although they were not as fat as he would have liked. The giant was due to come by at any moment.
Looking up, the butcher saw a string of onions hanging from the ceiling. “My little ones,” he said, “surely you could use an onion or two for your grandmother’s broth.”
“That would be nice. She would be very pleased,” they said.
Grabbing each child by the collar, the butcher lifted them both up to the ceiling so they could reach the onions hanging there. Then he lowered them and brought their heads together with such a crash that they were stunned. He shoved them head first into the brine of a large pickle barrel and slammed down the lid.
It wasn’t long before the giant came to the butcher’s shop. “Aha,” roared the giant. “What a fine load of meat I’ve got for you tonight! And what, pray tell, do you have stored away for me?”
The butcher smiled smugly and removed the lid from the pickle barrel. He showed the giant the two children standing on their heads, pickling nicely. The giant smacked his lips and chortled with glee at the thought of the fine dainty morsels he would have to eat the next day, for he liked children to be well pickled.
Now St. Nicholas was a long ways off when he heard the long blast of the willow whistle. He was working very hard delivering presents to good little girls and boys. The snow was very deep, so it was some time before he reached the butcher shop. When he looked in the window, he saw the butcher and the giant smirking in a corner and he knew that all was not well. As he entered the shop, the butcher slammed the lid quickly on the pickle barrel, and the giant sat on it, trying to hide the barrel from the stranger.
“Yes, sit, what can I do for you?”
I would like to buy a small piece of meat, perhaps from that barrel over there , he said, pointing to the barrel on which the giant was sitting.
“That barrel is empty,” said the butcher, “but come with me into the back room and choose some meat from that barrel in the corner.”
St. Nicholas looked into the barrel in the corner and said, “Yes, there is a small piece of meat I would like to have at the very bottom. Could you just reach in and get it out for me?”
So the butcher leaned over the barrel, but the meat was right at the bottom and hard to reach. He leaned further into the barrel and finally St. Nicholas grabbed the butcher by the heels and thrust him into the barrel and slammed down the lid. He held the lid down with a large stone, and that was the end of the wicked butcher.
When St. Nicholas went back into the shop, the giant was still sitting on the barrel, trying to hide it with his fat legs.
He said to the giant, I would like a piece of meat from that hogshead barrel over there, but it is very tall. Could you get it out for me?”
The giant got off the pickle barrel and leaned over the huge hogshead, for there was a little piece of meat in the far corner. As the giant leaned down, St. Nicholas grabbed a large shin bone that he found on the floor and brought it down on the giant’s head. The giant lost his balance and fell into the hogshead. He was so big that the harder he struggled, the faster he stuck. St. Nicholas slammed the lid on the hogshead and that was the end of the wicked giant.
Then he went over to the pickle barrel and took off the lid. There he saw the two children standing on their heads, pickling in the brine. He lifted them out and warmed them with his hands and breathed magic upon them. Gradually, bit by bit, they came back to life.
St. Nicholas wrapped up a piece of meat for them, gave them a string of onions to carry and sent them home to their grandmother. They were just in time. They made some good broth and the grandmother became stronger and stronger, and they knew she would survive the winter.
And every winter after that, when the snow was deepest, the air coldest and when the night was at its darkest, the children kept the willow whistle close by so they could summon St. Nicholas whenever danger threatened.
“St. Nicholas and the Children,” from Canadian Fairy Tales, text copyright © 1984 by Eva Martin. First published in Canada by Groundwood Books Ltd. Reproduced by permission of the publisher. This story originally appeared in Canadian Fairy Tales, collected and introduced by Cyrus MacMillan, The Bodley Head, London, 1922.