The Sweetness of Surprise

St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, always gives in secret. Secretly leaving treats on the eve of St. Nicholas Day is thought to have originated in France during the twelfth century, when a group of nuns were inspired to imitate Nicholas’ gift-giving midnight missions.

The oranges gave a deep, fruity smell to the small room. Their warm color was a delightful sight on this dark winter night. Sister Maria Felicia looked over the bowls of nuts that lay waiting too. A stack of cheerfully colorful cloth, cut into squares, brightened the table.

She took a deep breath, holding in the aroma of the oranges, then sighed contentedly. This was a night for surprises!

A few weeks before, there had been talk in her convent of the good St. Nicholas, whose feast day was approaching. The sisters were amused that local school boys were planning a “Boy Bishop” celebration, where the boys played at being bishops because St. Nicholas himself had been very young when appointed bishop. But the sisters’ conversation drifted to other ways Nicholas was remembered. His giving money in secret late at night to those in need was much admired.

That night, Sister Maria Felicia had been unable to sleep. Other children, not so fortunate as the schoolboys, kept coming to mind. She had seen them in the street. The poor children, those with ragged clothing torn by the wind, those with hollow cheeks and eyes that did not sparkle but instead looked out dully onto a cruel world—those she could not forget. Just before she finally fell asleep, she thought of St. Nicholas. And Sister Maria Felicia began to plan.

And now, it was time for that plan!

She heard footsteps and soft voices of the other sisters in the hallway. Soon the room was filled with happy workers.

Conversation and laughter mingled as some sisters sewed the cloth into bags and others stuffed the bags with oranges and nuts. Sister Maria Felicia moved slowly, for her ancient bones permitted no more quick movements. But tonight, tingling with excitement, she almost felt young again.

When the bags were finished, all the sisters pulled on cloaks—everyone Sister Maria Felicia. The others looked at her with a bit of sadness, for this had been her idea.

“If we walk slowly, perhaps you could come?” one young sister asked.

Laying a veined hand on the young nun’s shoulder, Sister Maria Felicia said, “No. Secret giving can be tricky. You may have to run. I’d get caught for sure! Go on now. I’ll hear all about it in the morning.”

She watched them leave, laden with the bright bags that betrayed their contents by the delicious fragrance. The excited chatter quieted, for all must be silent now.

As they disappeared into the darkness, Sister Maria Felicia stood in the doorway for a moment thinking of the children who would be so surprised in the morning. It would have been nice to go.

But she must not linger. She had her own secrets!

As quickly as her legs could carry her, Sister Maria Felicia went to the kitchen and pulled a large tray of small cakes from its hiding place. Oh, the cakes were even more beautiful now than when she had so tiredly finished them in the early hours of this morning!

And now, despite the lack of sleep, despite old bones that wouldn’t hurry, Sister Maria Felicia began her own journey of surprises, leaving little cakes in places she knew each sister would surely discover in the morning.

Happily tired, she tumbled into bed, wondering if St. Nicholas had felt this same mixture of excitement and exhaustion after one of his secret journeys. She was asleep in minutes.

Sister Maria Felicia slept so soundly that she never heard the soft footsteps in the hallway, nor a basket filled with sweets being placed outside her door.