In this column, originally published on Dec. 24, 2017, I interviewed Pittsford WWII veteran Richard Brookins, famous all around the country — and world — as the “American St. Nick.”
I picked up this column idea from a notice I saw on the Webster Museum website about a presentation Brookins was giving there on Dec. 9. (Click here to read the story about that visit.) I got some contact information from the folks at the museum and arranged to meet with him at his Pittsford home.
We sat at his kitchen table and he almost immediately made it clear that he didn’t trust reporters much. He had been interviewed hundreds of times about his experience, and too often found the subsequent articles were filled with inaccuracies.
As it was, every time a column of mine was published, I would worry that I had gotten something wrong or the subject wouldn’t like it. So his warnings made me that much more nervous.
Fortunately, he liked the article very much.
Pittsford WWII veteran brought joy to European village as American St. Nick
Here’s a charming holiday story, about a Christmas gift delivered to the children of war-torn Luxembourg. It’s been told many times, but its simple message of holiday joy deserves recounting.
The story stars Richard Brookins, a 95-year old World War II veteran currently living in Pittsford. Brookins has gained international fame thanks to one day almost 75 years ago, when he forever became known as the “American St. Nick.”
The story begins in December 1944. Private Brookins, then just 22 years old, and his buddies with the 28th Infantry Division had regrouped in Wiltz, Luxembourg, after helping drive out the German army. It was a fairy-tale-beautiful village, but the residents had suffered under the German occupation.
“The Germans just took over their life,” Brookins remembered. “They threw them out of their homes, took their possessions and the houses … They took away all their cultural things.”
The Germans also refused to allow the people to celebrate one of their most treasured holidays: St. Nicholas Day.
After hearing some of these stories from a local resident, Brookins’ friend Harry Stutz came up with the idea of hosting a St. Nicholas Day party for the children of the village. For gifts, the GIs pooled some of candy and gum they regularly received from the government. The cooks made cookies, and the nuns made a cake.
Still, one thing was missing: St. Nicholas himself. Stutz asked Brookins to do the honors.
“All you have to do is walk around, pat the kids on the head, chuck them under the chin, smile at ‘em, that’s all,” Stutz said. So Brookins agreed.
The nuns provided Brookins with a priest’s surplice (which had to be returned by 4 p.m. for Mass), a bishop’s miter, a broken and taped-up shepherd’s crook and a rope beard.
As St. Nicholas made his rounds, the children sang and performed skits. Not knowing the language, he couldn’t say much, so he just patted them on the head and chucked them under the chin. But that was plenty.
“They just really thought this was St. Nicholas,” Brookins said. “They were speechless.”
That day came and went, and the GIs and townspeople went back to their normal lives. Brookins eventually went home, mostly forgetting about the whole event.
Then in 1977, he received a letter from an official in Wiltz.
“He wanted to have a special activity, and wondered if I could come back and be St. Nicholas.” So that December, he and his family all made the trip back to Luxembourg.
“You couldn’t believe it,” Brookins remembered. “People were standing in line to see this goofy old guy, 55 years old.” To them, “I was America.”
This time, Brookins wore a professionally-made cloak, carried a steel shepherd’s crook painted gold, and sported a much more realistic beard.
“It was really an upgrade,” Brookins said. “I really looked like royalty.”
Brookins has returned to Wiltz to reprise his role seven times since then. Many residents, now in their 80s and 90s, remember when the American St. Nick gave them candy back in 1944.
Wiltz continues to celebrate St. Nicholas Day every year, and is already planning the 75th anniversary of that first visit. Brookins doesn’t bet on being around for that celebration, but several of his family members are already saving up to make the trip.
As often as he’s shared this story, Brookins makes sure to pass off most of the credit.
“I do this in honor of the guys who did all the work, for all of my buddies who aren’t here. They earned it. I didn’t have to do anything but chuck ‘em under the chin and pat ‘em on the head.”
But he added, “I just can’t tell you, as much as I try to, what meaning it has.”
What happened next…
As it turned out, Brookins wasn’t, in fact, around for the 75th anniversary. He passed away on Oct. 11, 2018, less than a year after my column. He was 96 years old.
The people of Wiltz, Luxembourg still celebrate the story of the American St. Nick every year, and did host a 75th anniversary celebration in 2019. Click here to read more about that, and see a few more photos from the time when some American GIs brought a Christmas miracle to war-torn Luxenbourg.
The anniversary was also commemorated in October of 2019 by the Luxembourg American Cultural Society, located in Belgium, Wisconsin. You can read more about that here.