Saint Nicholas and the Chance to Reassure and Redeem a Child - The Waldorf Way December 08 2021

December 6th is the Festival of Saint Nicholas. Some countries celebrate this festival on December 5; however, whichever day, Saint Nicholas is held dear by many countries. Russia and Greece, where he was born (in the country now known as Turkey) count him as their patron saint. He lived in the late third and early fourth centuries in the Roman Empire. His fame earned him the envy of the Emperor Diocletian who had him imprisoned and killed because of this.

Many miracles have been attributed to this charismatic character. The ones that interest us in Waldorf communities are those connected to his compassion for children everywhere. He was known to have brought babies back to life. He fed poor children, found clothing and housing for orphans, and perhaps most famously, he miraculously rescued five or six children from an abusive employer—a butcher. This man used children and discarded them if they ever were disobedient or got behind in their work. The unfortunate little ones in this story disobeyed the master’s order and as punishment, he pickled the lot of them. St. Nicholas found the children and drew them out of the pickle barrels and resurrected them with their bodies whole and well.

Waldorf teachers have used the image of St. Nicholas as a kindly soul who sees and loves all children no matter what. He helps children to appreciate their goodness and to point to things they might do better.

As a teacher, one of the most powerful things St. Nicholas can do for children is to let them know that all things we do as human beings make a difference. And these things are seen by someone—in this case, St. Nicholas. His enormous golden book holds the writings of all our good deeds and all our misdemeanors. St. Nicholas gives children nuts and apples and gives them kind words of encouragement. He then says something to each child and makes suggestions about some things they have done that make him sad. He gives suggestions for making things right again or for better practices. Right up through fourth grade, children are left marveling about how St. Nicholas could possibly know things that they had done and that they thought no one knew about.

For particularly struggling or hard-working little ones, a golden walnut comes out of St. Nicholas’s bag. Some teachers give all the children golden nuts, others do not, saving the golden nuts for a particularly stellar deed or, better, some great need a child has. In one class a child received a golden nut in fifth-grade, the year his father passed away, for example. In another class, a fourth-grade boy with a recent diagnosis of Tourette’s and a harsh handling by the diagnosing physician was soothed by encouraging words from St. Nicholas and a golden nut.

This opportunity to have young people hear their deeds read back to them from a place of loving authority is not something that’s easy to replace. The sobering hearing of what is known from the book of life can significantly help children to release bad feelings about themselves, or correct a bad habit, or be made to understand that something they think they are “getting away with” is seen by someone, that their actions matter.

One teacher found out that his fourth-grade boys were experimenting with smoking cigarettes behind a building on the campus. He chose not to confront his class. St. Nicholas’s Day was approaching, and he knew this would be more effective. He conspired with St. Nicholas, who came to the class and read little verses for each child and gave them nuts and apples and a golden nut or two. As St. Nichols was leaving the classroom, he called to the teacher to come to the door as he left. St. Nicholas whispered something to the teacher, who recoiled in shock and said, loud enough to be heard, but still whispering, “No! St. Nicholas you must be wrong! This class would not do such a thing.” St. Nicholas sadly nodded and left. The teacher said nothing but looked pensive for quite some time during that day. The smoking stopped and, once again, St. Nicholas rescued children.

In Waldorf schools, we hold a responsibility to cultivate children’s inner development for compassion for others and moral strength, as well as skills’ development. Finding artistic and effective ways to call to children, to emulate the best qualities in themselves, is represented in traditions like this one of St. Nicholas, champion of children.            

In some cultures, St. Nicholas is never seen, but he comes in the night and stuffs children’s shoes with treats and thoughts for continuing goodness and ideas for improvement!