The American St. Nick tells the remarkable true story of a handful of GIs who during the chaos of war, help bring Christmas back a small Luxembourg town, and unknowingly create a holiday tradition that continues to this very day.
By Peter Lion
IT’S DECEMBER1944. The Germans are retreating. It appears the war in Europe may be over soon, but not soon enough for members of the battle-worn 28th Infantry Division.
Knowing they won’t be home again for the holidays, soldiers from a 112th Regiment Signal Company Message Center based in the storybook town of Wiltz, Luxembourg realize that although the community has been liberated after nearly five years of Nazi occupation, the ravages of war have left the citizens with nothing to celebrate the season. For the children, it will be especially bleak without the hope of candies, treats, gifts or the usual town-wide celebration of Saint Nicolas Day – Dec. 6.
Hearing this, a corporal by the name of Harry Stutz gets an idea. He gathers some of his fellow soldiers together to organize a Christmas party for the children of Wiltz. The event will include a special visit from Saint Nicolas himself, thanks to a reluctant member of the 112th named Corporal Richard Brookins.
Wearing the mass robes of the local priest and a crudely fashioned rope beard to complete the costume, the impromptu Father Christmas rides through town on a U.S. Army jeep, stopping to meet the children and pass out treats baked by the the regiment’s cooks or donated from GI care packages from home. The celebration continues with a party for all the children at Wiltz Castle. It’s a magical day for the kids of the town and for the American soldiers as well.
Ten days later, the German army smashes through the Allied lines in the Ardennes, touching off what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The town of Wiltz is overrun and the 28th Infantry Division puts up a stiff resistance before withdrawing. In the weeks of fighting that followed, most of the town is damaged or destroyed, mostly from Allied bombing. Tragically, many of the townspeople, including children, die in the fighting. While, the joy of that one Saint Nicolas Day was gone, it would not be forgotten.
Following the war Wiltz is rebuilt. Those who survived vowed never to forget the kindness and generosity of that bitter-sweet December day. Each year, the town gathers to honor the GIs who gave the children of Wiltz that magical Christmas gift in 1944. A local dons the garb of the American Saint Nicolas, aging veterans of the 112th return to Wiltz and that now famous wartime jeep ride through town is reenacted.
It’s a tradition that has continued faithfully for more than seven decades.
Peter Lion is an Emmy award winning director and the author of American St. Nick: A True Story, an amazing tale of war, honor, luck and love. Published by Plain Sight, the book is packed full of incredible details that will amaze, entertain and delight for generations. You can also watch the companion documentary film airing in the U.S. on PBS stations nationwide. Check your local PBS station listings for air times.