Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra well-known for his piety and zeal. His reputation for secret gift giving became the model for the modern-day Santa Claus; a tradition in many European countries is for children to set out their shoes on the Eve of the feast with a carrot or hay for the saint’s donkey. The little ones awaken to find their footwear filled with chocolate coins or candies if they have been good that year, or a small branch or switch if they have not. (Thanks be to God that I was born in 20th century America, or I might well have accumulated enough wood to build my own home by age 15.)
After high school I briefly attended a small, all-female Catholic college out of state. One of the Pennsylvania Dutch region school’s beloved traditions was the observance of the St. Nicholas feast complete with shoes outside the dorm rooms. Rumor had it the senior class women were the modern-day St. Nicholas-ettes who filled the shoes with candies, and many of the girls enjoyed the modern spin on this ancient tradition.
Not this native Jersey girl. This overly-engineered cuteness made me roll my eyes, but I succumbed to peer pressure and left my scuffed loafers outside my door just the same. I looked left and right down my hallway: little leather and wooden clones sat obediently outside every door. Why would all these women, striving to be individuals and hone their unique, God-given talents, want to walk around shod exactly alike, I wondered.
As the wheels turned in my head, a phrase came to mind. Not words of wisdom from the Bible or a scholarly treatise, but ones from a movie I had seen the preceding summer: Animal House. Just before the big Homecoming parade scene, the hapless character Otter utters the immortal words, “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.” With this ignoble escapade as inspiration, the Great St. Nicholas Shoe Caper sprang, fully formed, into my brain.
That night I called the rooms of my three closest, similarly cynical friends and asked them to meet me in the lounge at the end of the hall at 4 a.m. “Bring your laundry basket,” I told them mysteriously. Always up for a late-night adventure, my friends complied. Though my cause was not nearly so noble as that of St. Joan of Arc fighting the English or even Moses leading the Israelites through the newly-parted Red Sea, I strategized our small quartet of rebels carefully nonetheless.
“Laura, take your laundry basket, gather up all the shoes on the first floor, run up to the third floor, and lay two pairs down outside those doors,” I began. “Cindy, go get all the second floor’s shoes and run them up to the fourth floor. Beth, do the same on the third floor, but place them all outside the fifth floor’s doors. I’ll handle the fifth and the first floor’s shoes.” We even remembered to move our own shoes down three rooms to avoid suspicion yet promote rapid discovery.
For the next hour, my team of miscreants scurried about, softly giggling as we passed each other in the stairwell carrying plastic laundry baskets overflowing with shoes; we knew we needed to hurry in order that the seniors bearing candies would not discover our plot. Our consciences were clear: this was relocation of footwear, not theft, so the eighth Commandment was unbroken. To the casual observer, all was well: each room’s entry was adorned with two matched pairs of shoes… but not the pairs that belonged to the room’s occupants.
St. Nicholas Day dawned just a few hours later. At 8 a.m. the four of us, huddled in my dorm room with our ears pressed to the door, heard the same scenario unfold over and over again:
- Sound of door opening
- Sound of young woman uttering some variation of “Ooh, look at the candies in the shoes! How cute!”
- Sound of same young woman saying quizzically, “[NAME OF ROOMMATE], which of these pairs of shoes are yours? And where are MINE?”
- Sound of that roommate walking to door and saying, “NEITHER pair is mine; I thought they were YOURS!”
- Sound of another door opening
- (Lather, rinse, repeat conversation…)
The stairwell soon resounded with the sound of running feet and shouts from barefoot women as they realized their shoes had sprouted wings during the night. A few of the more enterprising young Catholic students teamed up to find their missing footwear. “I think I saw a pair of size 6 red pumps on the fifth floor,” one shouted. “And there’s black patent leathers on the first floor,” another one cried. My friends snuck from my room, collected their shoes, and headed off to class with no one the wiser at their roles as accomplices.
And then, just as I thought I would escape unscathed, I discovered the good St. Nicholas had gotten the last laugh. I walked three doors down to collect my own shoes… and found an empty doorsill. The kindly Bishop had indeed delivered a “switch” at my disobedience; my shoes were switched from their hiding place, and it took me a week of searching (and attending class in flip-flops) before they surfaced again.
Lesson learned, St. Nicholas. Readers, may your day be as joy-filled and sweet!