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Documentary Tells the True Story of "The American St. Nick"

A documentary airing Thursday night on CPTV tells the story of American soldiers stationed in Luxembourg during World War II who, without realizing it, helped to create a new holiday tradition. 

The film is based on a book by Connecticut author Peter Lion, called American St. Nick: A True Story.

Peter Lion first heard about Luxembourg’s long-running St. Nicolas Day holiday from a friend -- the son of an American soldier who, back in the 1940s, was stationed with the 28th Infantry Division in the small town of Wiltz.

On St. Nicolas Day, neighbors in Wiltz gather in the streets for a town-wide celebration.

The tradition was banned under Nazi occupation.

By 1944, residents could again enjoy the festivities, but there were few rations left. So the soldiers stepped in to organize a party.

Soldier Richard Brookins dressed up as St. Nicolas.

"They put Richard into a Jeep and they drove him around the town," Lion said. "Everybody could see St. Nicolas had returned. Then they drove the Jeep in through the Wiltz Castle portal, and had this little party for these children in Wiltz."

Eleven days later, the Battle of the Bulge erupted. The soldiers headed back into war.

Several of the children who were part of the celebration were killed. The town was nearly destroyed. But Lion said the people of Wiltz did not forget what had taken place.

"Since that time, from the rebuilding of their town, they decided that their St. Nicolas Day would have a new tradition," Lion said. "Somebody from the town would be chosen to dress up not as just St. Nicolas, but as the American St. Nicolas, and they would recreate the jeep procession through town just like the soldiers did during the war. And they faithfully recreated this event for 30 years."

In 1977, residents of Wiltz were able to track down Richard Brookins in the U.S. They invited him and other soldiers back to Wiltz to attend the celebration.

"These soldiers had no idea that this town was recreating this event in their honor," Lion said.

Brookins has returned eight times since, recreating his role as St. Nick.

In 2014, a film crew joined Brookins – then 92 years old -- to document bonds forged during a time of war that continue today. 

"The American St. Nick" airs Thursday on CPTV4U at 7:00 pm. Visit CPTV.org to find out other broadcast times.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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