Every year in The Netherlands, people celebrate the Festival of St Nicholas on December 6th. St Nicholas was originally a Bishop from Myra in Turkey, famous for his secret gift giving. It’s easy to see how he became so widely loved as Santa Claus which actually means Saint Nick. In the Netherlands from mid November right through to Dec 5th, children (and sometimes adults too I am told!) leave their shoes next to the fireplace or stove every night with a note for St Nick and a carrot for his horse. If they have been good, one of those mornings they will awake to find their shoes filled with sweets, chocolate coins or sometimes a little gift and then they call out, “Thank you St Nicholas!”
When I was working in The Hague in The Netherlands recently, I was walking through the centre of the city with Michael from DISC Storytelling. Stopping in the street, he pointed through a gate and down a passage that I hadn’t seen. “That used to be a synagogue but after the horrible events of the Second World War, it wasn’t used any more. Back in the 1970’s the Turkish community took over the building and it’s now the Aksa mosque. It’s known as a very warm and welcoming place. Would you like to hear a story about it?”
What a question to ask a storyteller – of course I would!
“Well”, Michael continued, “ it was about 12 years ago during the time when we celebrate the Festival of St Nicholas. One Friday the Turkish community were at their prayers and as usual, all their shoes were left on the stairs outside the door of the mosque. Dutch students from The Hague College crept through the gate and filled up all the shoes with sweets and little treats and then hid themselves away round the corner to watch what would happen. When prayers were over, the men left the mosque and headed back to their shoes. As they tried to slip their feet in, they found they couldn’t. A bit confused, they looked into their shoes and, discovering what was inside, burst out laughing. Looking up, they starting shouting, “Thank you, St. Nicholas!” ”
It occurs to me how irrelevant religious differences must have seemed at that moment as a Christian Turkish Bishop finally came full circle to be celebrated by his Muslim countrymen in a land far from home. May we be inspired by the generosity of St Nicholas and the playful response of the members of the Aksa Mosque as, here in the northern hemisphere, we move towards the darkest days of the year.