|The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus|
|by Amelia C. Houghton|
|Draw close to the fire, all you who believe in the spirit of Christmas, whether you call it Santa Claus, or simply good will to men; and listen to the story of Nicholas the Wandering Orphan who became Nicholas the Wood-carver, a lover of little children. Follow him through his first years as a lonely little boy, who had the knack of carving playthings for children; then as a young man, busy over the little toys; then as a prosperous, fat, rosy old man, who overcomes all sorts of difficulties in order to attain his ambition, a toy for every child in the village. Learn how he started to drive a beautiful sleigh drawn by prancing reindeer; why he first came down a chimney; how he filled the first stocking; where the first Christmas tree was decorated; and finally how he came to be known as Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus. Ages 6-10 |
FTER the crowd of villagers had
dispersed on that merry Christmas Day of
the race, Nicholas was stopped at the
door of the fisherman's cottage he had
lived in for a year, by a lean, dark-looking
man who looked as though he had
never smiled in his life. He had deep
lines in his forehead, shaggy gray eyebrows
which overhung and almost completely
hid his deep-set gray eyes, and a
mouth which went down at the corners, giving him an expression
of grouchiness which never seemed to change. It
was Bertran Marsden, the wood-carver of the village, and all
the children called him Mad Marsden, because he lived
alone, spoke to hardly anybody in the town, and chased the
children away from his door with black looks and harsh words.
He now edged up to Nicholas, who was busy dragging
his beloved new sled to his work-shed behind the house.
 "You haven't forgotten, Nicholas, that you move to
my house today," Marsden said gruffly.
Nicholas looked up. No, he had not forgotten, and he
well knew why Marsden had offered to take him in for the
last year of his life as a wandering orphan. The old wood-carver
had no children for Nicholas to take care of, he did
no farming or fishing, and therefore did not need a boy to
help him out in that direction. The only reason he was willing,
even eager, to feed and clothe the orphan was because
for almost five years now he had watched the work Nicholas
had been doing with his knife and carved woods, and realized
that he could get a good apprentice cheap, without paying
even a cent for the good work he knew he could get out
Knowing all these things, and thinking of the bleak little
cottage he would have to live in for a year, where there was
no laughter and sound of children's voices, it was with a
heavy heart that Nicholas piled up his few belongings in
the new sled, said a grateful farewell to the family he was
leaving, and followed Mad Marsden home to the low,
mean-looking cottage on the outskirts of the village.
On entering the cottage, he stepped immediately into the
main workroom of the wood-carver. Here were found his
 bench, his table, his tools, and his woods. A broad fireplace
almost filled another side of the room, and black pots and
greasy kettles showed plainly that no scouring housewife had
set foot in the cottage for years. A pile of tumbled blankets
in one corner was evidently Marsden's bed, and near the
window was a table, littered with the remains of his morning
meal. These and a few rickety chairs completed the
furnishings of this one dark room.
Marsden led the way in and pointed to a door in the
"You can stow your belongings in there," he said over
his shoulder to Nicholas, who was standing in the middle of
the untidy room, looking around him in dismay. "There's
a cot you can sleep on, and you may as well put that pretty
sled away for good. We have no time here to go romping
in the snow."
Nicholas nodded silently, too puzzled at the old man's
living quarters to be hurt by the harsh words. He could
not understand why Marsden should live so meanly, because,
as the only wood-carver in the village, he was kept busy all
the time filling orders for his hand-carved tables, chairs,
cabinets, bridal chests, sleighs, and several other useful
household articles that the villagers were in constant need
 of. The poorer people paid him in flour, vegetables,
fish—whatever they could send him; the more well-to-do gave
him good gold coin for his work. Not only that, but it was a
well-known fact that he did work for the people in two or
three neighboring villages, where there was no other wood-carver.
In spite of the fact, then, that he probably had
more money than any of the poor fishermen in the village,
his cottage was meaner and shabbier than any of the
well-scrubbed houses in which Nicholas had spent the past nine
"Come now, Nicholas, don't stand there gawking.
Put away your belongings; you have much to learn here.
I'm going to make a good wood-carver of you. No time for
silly little dolls and wooden horses; you'll have to earn your
keep here. And mind you, I won't have this place filled
with screaming little brats. You keep that tribe of young
ones that's always following you about out of here, do you
His eyes gleamed fiercely beneath the shaggy brows.
Nicholas stammered in a frightened voice, "Yes—yes,
master. But," he pleaded, suddenly struck by the thought
that he might not see any of his little friends any more, "but
they don't do any harm, the children—they only like to
 watch me work, and I wouldn't let them get in your way
or touch anything . . ."
"Silence!" roared the old man, shaking his fists in the
air and glaring at the frightened boy. "I won't have 'em,
do you understand? I want to be alone. I wouldn't have
you here if the work didn't pile up so that I need a helper.
But you'll have to work, and there'll be no time for Christmas
visits to children and all that nonsense."
Nicholas bowed his head and went silently to work putting
away his small bundle of clothing, his few books, his
father's sea-chest and jack-knife. The year ahead of him
stretched forth bleakly, and only the thought that he was
now fourteen years old and almost a man kept him from
crying himself to sleep that night in his dark, cold little room.
So Nicholas started to work for the mad old wood-carver,
and learned many things. He learned that his father's old
jack-knife was a clumsy tool compared with the beautiful
sharp knives and wheels that Marsden used; he learned to
work for hours, bent over the bench beside his master,
patiently going over and over one stick of wood until it was
planed to the exact hundredth of an inch that his teacher
required; he learned to keep on working even though the
back of his neck almost shrieked with pain, and the muscles
 of his arms and hands grew lame from so much steady labor.
All this he grew used to in time, for he was a strong, sturdy
lad, and young enough so that his muscles became accustomed
to the hard work; but what he felt he never could get
used to was the dreadful loneliness of the place. His friends,
the children, gradually gave up trying to see him after they
had been shooed away from the door by the cross old
wood-carver; Marsden himself rarely talked, except to give brief
instructions about the work, or to scold him for some mistake.
So Nicholas was sad and lonely, and longed for the
days when he had been in friendly cottages, surrounded by
a laughing group of children.
In addition to his duties at the work-bench, he also attempted
to straighten out the two miserable little rooms
where they lived. Marsden was surprised one morning on
awakening to discover that Nicholas, who had risen two
hours earlier, had swept and scrubbed the floor and hearthstone,
taken down the dirty hangings from the two little windows
and had them airing in the yard, and was now busily
scrubbing with clean sea-sand the dirt-incrusted pots and
pans. The table was set in front of the fire with a clean
white cloth and dishes, and the kettle was bubbling merrily
on the hearth.
 Marsden opened his mouth to speak, then closed it without
saying a word. Nicholas took the kettle from the fire,
poured the boiling water over the tea-leaves, spread some
bread with fresh, sweet butter, and said simply, "Your
MARSDEN OPENED HIS MOUTH TO SPEAK.
Marsden ate wordlessly, looking at Nicholas from under
his wild eyebrows. The boy went on with his work, which
consisted now in bundling up the tumbled bed-clothing and
throwing it over a line in the yard. Marsden finished his
breakfast and finally spoke.
"You'll find some meal in that corner cupboard," he said.
"We might have some porridge tomorrow morning." Nicholas
nodded. "Now, stop all that woman's work and let's
get on with that chest. I've promised it for next Wednesday,
and even if that silly Enid Grondin is fool enough to get
married, we must have our work out when it is promised."
But after that morning, Marsden was careful to shake
out his bed-clothing after he arose, and to clean up the dishes
after his breakfast. And the cottage gradually came to look
more like a place where human beings could live.
One night, as Marsden sat in front of his fire, silently
smoking his long pipe, he noticed that Nicholas was still
bent over the work-bench.
 "Here, lad," he said almost kindly, in his gruff voice,
"I'm not such a hard master that I have you work night as
well as day. What's that you're doing? Why don't you
go to your bed, hey? "
Nicholas answered hastily. " It's just a piece of wood
you threw away, master, and I thought I'd see if I could
copy that fine chair you made for Mistress Grozik. This
is a little one—a toy," he ended fearfully; for he well knew
that the word " toy " would mean children to old Marsden,
and for some strange reason just to mention a child in his
presence sent him into a rage.
Tonight, however, he contented himself with merely a
black look, and said, "Let me see it. Hmm—not bad,
but you have that scroll on the back bigger on one side than
the other. Here, give me that knife."
Nicholas hastened with the tool, and watched admiringly
as the old wood-carver deftly corrected the mistake.
"There," Marsden said finally, holding his work away
from him, " that's the way it should be done."
Then, instead of handing the little chair to Nicholas,
who was waiting expectantly, he continued holding it in his
hands, while a bitter and yet rather sad expression came into
the fierce old eyes, and a smile,—Nicholas blinked and
 looked again,—yes, a real smile was tugging at the corners
of that stern mouth which had been turned down for so
"It's a long time since I made one of these wee things,"
he murmured half to himself. "Yet I made plenty, years
and years ago, when they were little."
"IT'S A LONG TIME SINCE I MADE ONE OF THESE WEE THINGS."
Nicholas ventured a timid question. "When who were
The corners of Marsden's mouth went down again; his
eyes turned fierce and angry once more. "My sons," he
roared. " I once had two sons, and when they were as big
as you, they ran away to sea, and left me all alone, left me
to grow old and crabbed, so the children call me Mad Marsden.
Children, bah! Do you wonder why I'll have none of
them around my house? Do you wonder when I can't stand
their baby voices babbling around here, where once . . ."
His voice broke, and he buried his old head in his hands.
Nicholas wasn't afraid of him any more; he went over
and put his pitying young hands on the old shoulders.
"I'll be your son, master; I won't leave you," he whispered.
Marsden lifted his head, and looked at the strong young
face with the kind blue eyes bent over him. "You're a
good lad, Nicholas. And," he added almost shyly, for it
 wasn't easy for a harsh man to change so quickly, "I think
I'd like to help you with some of those little things you
make. We'll make them together these long winter evenings,
eh, shall we, Nicholas? So you can go around next
Christmas Day in that fine sled of yours. Then you won't
leave me alone again, will you, lad?"
He grasped Nicholas' arm almost roughly, then a peaceful
expression crept into the lonely old face as the boy
answered simply, "No, master, I'll stay here with you just
as long as you want me."
So every winter evening saw two heads bent over the
work-bench—a gray head with thick, shaggy hair, and the
smooth yellow head of the boy. They worked feverishly
during the weeks preceding Christmas; and with the old
man helping with the carving, Nicholas was able to add delicate
little touches to the toys which made them far more
handsome than any he had ever made before. He painted
the dolls' faces so that their eyes were as blue and their
cheeks and lips were as rosy as the little girls who would
soon clasp them in their arms; the little chairs and tables
were stained with the same soft colors that Marsden used
on his own products; the little boys' sleighs and boats and
 animals were shiny with bright new paints,—red and
yellow and green.
So, two nights before Christmas, everything was
finished,—a toy for every child in the village was packed in
the sled with the steel runners; yet Nicholas and the old
man were still working at the bench. This time, they were
desperately trying to finish a chest which had been ordered
by a wealthy woman in the next village, twenty miles away.
She had said definitely that she wanted the chest finished
in time for Christmas Day, because she was giving it to
her daughter as a betrothal gift and the feast was to be
celebrated then. Marsden and Nicholas worked feverishly
most of that night and the following day, and there still
remained a few little finishing touches, and here it was
Christmas Eve. Marsden could have it done in time to be
delivered tomorrow, but of course Nicholas would have to
borrow the nearest neighbor's horse and drive over with the
chest on Christmas Day itself, -the day when he had
planned to make his tour of the village with his gifts, to
show the children that he had not forgotten them, even
though they had not seen much of him during the past year.
"I'm sorry, Nicholas," said old Marsden. " I'd go
myself, but I'm not as strong as I used to be, and it's an all-
 day trip—twenty miles over, then you'll have to wait
several hours to rest the horse, and twenty miles back. And
with the snow not crusted, it'll be hard going."
Nicholas was sitting in front of the fire, leaning on his
elbows, staring thoughtfully into the flames.
"If she only didn't want the chest tomorrow for sure,"
he said. "And if we had only finished it before today, I
could have delivered it sooner, and had plenty of time tomorrow."
"Well," answered his master, "we did promise it, and it
has to be delivered. Now the toys weren't promised . . ."
"No, but I always have given them," interrupted
"I was just going to say, lad, that they weren't promised
for Christmas Day. Now, you know that little children
go to bed early. Why can't you . . ."
"Oh, I understand," cried Nicholas, leaping from his
chair. "I deliver the gifts tonight, Christmas Eve, after
the children have gone to bed, and when they wake up to
morrow morning, they'll find them there, at their doors!
Oh, master, that's a wonderful idea! Why, it's even better
than before. I never did like the idea of walking up to a
house in broad daylight and hearing people thank me and
 everything. What time is it, quick? Eleven o'clock! I'll
have to hurry. Where's my list? Where's my sled?"
So the two rushed around and finally got the sled out in
the yard. Nicholas bundled himself up in his close-fitting
hat shaped like a stocking, his long belted tunic coat edged
with fur, his black leggings and heavy boots, pulled on his
mittens, and was off through the snow, dragging the toy-laden sled behind him.
Christmas Eve in the village—a bright winter moon
shining in the star-filled sky; glistening white snow banked
everywhere—on the roads, on the roof-tops, on the fences,
and in the doorways; houses darkened and the inmates all
sleeping soundly; not a soul stirring in the streets but one
figure, which stole silently from door to door, leaving a pile
of tiny objects every place he stopped, until there was
nothing left in the bottom of the sled. It was three o'clock
on Christmas morning when Nicholas turned away from
the last doorway, his sled lighter to pull, his feet tired from
dragging through the heavy snow, but happy that it was
Christmas morning and he had once more kept his unspoken
promise to the children.
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