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December 17, 2015

Heather Gudenkauf: Of Saints and Books and Traditions, Old and New

Posted by emily

Heather Gudenkauf is known for her bestselling fiction, especially when it comes to suspenseful page-turners. Her latest --- available on February 2nd --- is MISSING PIECES, about a woman who uncovers earth-shattering secrets about her husband's family. The mysteries in her own life are a little less sinister, but no less life-changing. About 20 years ago, her fourth-grade students taught her about the charms of St. Nicholas Day. In her blog piece, Heather shares how her family celebrates St. Nick and why the old man can't seem to stop bringing books.


When I was a child, we didn’t celebrate St. Nicholas Day --- St. Nicholas didn’t visit my hometown each December 6th, as he did for some other children. Santa Claus, as we knew him, did drop off presents at our house throughout the month of December, although we didn’t get to open them until Christmas Day. He just brought them early, my parents said, so he and the elves would have time to deliver all the gifts that needed to be distributed throughout the world on Christmas Eve. (In reality, my parents just ran out of good hiding places for the colorfully wrapped gifts for the six of us, and they thought it would be easier to say that Santa just happened to swing by on his way home from the grocery store.)

So, over 20 years ago, when I moved to my current hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, and I learned about St. Nicholas Day from my fourth-grade students, little did I know that a brand-new Gudenkauf tradition would be born.

“Mrs. Gudenkauf,” said one boy, “remember we have to set our gym shoes out for St. Nick.”        

“Why would we do that?” I asked innocently, and my students eagerly went on to give me an education about all things St. Nick.

“If we set our shoes out, St. Nick will come while we are sleeping and put candy in them.”

“And oranges and gold chocolate coins.”

“And sometimes even toys,” piped up one lucky child.

“And sometimes lumps of coal,” said one student glumly.

“Okay,” I said, “but what does that have to do with your gym shoes?”

Loudly and slowly, as if with great patience, one child explained, “If we set out our shoes out at school, St. Nick will come here, too. We’ll get more candy.”

I was pretty sure that no one, let alone a saint, wanted to get a whiff of 22 pairs of tennis shoes at one time, but I was game. At the end of the school day on December 5th, my students set their shoes neatly beneath their desks. Once everyone was bundled up and out the door, I made a mad dash to Target. Now, keep in mind I was newly married and a teacher in a tiny parochial school, meaning I was totally broke. But no matter, this was a vital purchase --- the preservation of childlike wonder and the spirit of Christmas was at stake. I bought bags of candy, arrived at school extra early the following morning, and filled my students’ shoes with miniature candy bars and Tootsie Rolls. When my students stepped into the classroom and found their shoes overflowing with candy, they were appropriately impressed.

Over the next four years, in quick succession, my husband and I had our three children. Like all families, we adapted the traditions that we grew up with and made them our own. So, on December 5th of each year, we would set out their shoes in honor of St. Nick. Along with Hershey’s Kisses, my kids would receive a book. Most often they were simple paperbacks or board books with a winter or Christmas theme. My daughter, Anna, remembers receiving Jan Brett’s ANNIE AND THE WILD ANIMALS, about a little girl who, in the depths of winter, loses her beloved cat and tries to befriend a forest filled with wild animals. Gracie, my youngest, remembers receiving THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, once again beautifully illustrated by Jan Brett, that we first would read together and then check to make sure there were really seven swans a-swimming and discuss what in the world a colly bird was. Not every St. Nick book was holiday-themed, though. Alex, my oldest, remembers getting a Star Wars book called JAR JAR’S MISTAKE that he read over and over again until the pages started to fall out.

Even as I was writing this, Alex said to me, “If St. Nick is planning on bringing me a book this year, I wouldn’t mind one by Richard Branson.” Anna has requested WHY NOT ME? by Mindy Kaling, and Grace will likely get a book about running --- all courtesy of St. Nick, of course.

Each December 6th, my children continue to check to see what St. Nick has brought them --- but now that I have two in college, they check their campus mailbox rather than their shoes. Though they are grown, I love seeing their faces light up or hearing the gratitude in their voices when they find what new worlds of wonder St. Nick has delivered to them through the pages of a book.

I thank my former fourth-grade students, all grown now and many with families of their own, for introducing me to the traditions, old and new, of St. Nick’s Day that will hopefully continue for my children’s children. There is nothing better than the gift of books.