American GIs, a War-Weary Town, and the True Spirit of Christmas
A Journey to Christmas Past in Peter Lion’s “American St. Nick”
By Courtney Blackburn
Sandwiched between Belgium, France, and Germany, Luxembourg of 1944 was a war-weary land. But that December, something magical happened: a handful of American soldiers brought Christmas back to the small town of Wiltz during the darkest days of WWII.
The true history of these heroes of a different sort, Peter Lion’s American St. Nick, has already inspired a PBS documentary. It deserves a film like Unbroken.
The story begins with veteran Frank McClelland passing through continental Europe in 1977 on a tour of WWII remembrance. He belonged to the American 28th Infantry Division, which was headquartered in Wiltz, Luxembourg. While there, he finds a museum. In it, the excited curators point to a faded picture of a bearded man sitting in a jeep. He, they explain, is their American Saint Nick.
In the cold winter of 1944, an American solider named Harry Stutz had an idea for a Christmas party to give the children and families of Wiltz something to celebrate again. After speaking with the local priest and teachers, Stutz learned that traditionally, Saint Nicholas Day was celebrated on Dec. 6, and that it had been banned under the Nazi’s oppressive rule for the past four years.
Stutz was determined to give the children of Wiltz their Saint Nicholas.
The irony? He was Jewish. But that didn’t matter.
Stutz volunteered his friend, Corporal Richard Brookins, to play the role of Saint Nick.
On Dec. 5, 1944, Brookins wore a priest’s robes and a fake beard, a miter too tight for his head, and drove in the back of an American jeep, passing out candy, donuts, and goodies all donated by the 28th Division to the awestruck children of Wiltz.
And the town of Wiltz never forgot.
So more than 30 years later, Wiltz’s museum curators ask for Frank McClelland’s help to find their American Saint Nick – Richard Brookins. And the story of these men, their war, and the town that reclaimed Christmas in American St. Nick is one everyone should read.
Peter Lion’s debut nonfiction reads like a novel, with dialogue that begs to be in a screenplay – it’s crafted with humor, clarity, and genuine heart. Though a short read of around 160 pages, first-hand details are scattered throughout, adding a real sense of time and place. Once or twice these details slow down the pace, as in the case of Frank McClelland doing his laundry step-by-step while waiting for a very important telephone call – when we readers are desperate to hear that the call came!
This book tells a story that people need more than ever. With growing global hostility abroad and dissent, distrust, and murder at home, St. Nick is needed to smile, let out a rich chuckle, and give with both hands to those in need. We need Santa Claus.
He is, like Dicken’s Ghost of Christmas Present, the very spirit of generosity. He is warmth and kindness, unselfishness, hospitality. He is dignity and mystery.
And he lived in a group of battle-hardened soldiers who laid down their arms and took up candy, giving with all their hearts.
This incredible story of heroism and hope amidst the horror of war is an uplifting holiday must-read that will inspire you to share kindness, even in the darkest times.
So discover the American Saint Nick.
American St. Nick was released in October 2015 by Cedar Fort Publishing. It is available in paperback and ebook format on their website.