A New York Christmas Story
Back in the old days, I had a successful bake-shop in Albany. I had a good business, a plump wife, and a big family. I was a happy man. But trouble came to my shop one year in the guise of an ugly old woman. She entered my shop a few minutes before closing and said: “I wish to have a dozen cookies.” She pointed to my special Saint Nicholas cookies that were sitting out on a tray. So I counted out twelve cookies for her.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed when she saw the cookies. “Only twelve?” she asked. I knew at once what she wanted. There were some bakers in town who sometimes gave an extra cookie to their customers, but I was appalled by the custom. What man of sense would give away an extra cookie for free?
“I asked for a dozen cookies, and you only give me twelve,” the woman said.
“A dozen is twelve, my good woman, and that is what I have given you,” I replied.
“I ordered a dozen cookies, not twelve,” said the old woman.
I was upset by this demand. I always gave my customers exactly what they paid for. But I was a thrifty man, and it was against my nature to give away something for nothing.
“I have a family to support,” I said stiffly. “If I give away all my cookies, how can I feed my family? A dozen is twelve, not thirteen! Take it or leave it!”
“Very well,” said she, and left the shop without taking the cookies.
From that moment, my luck changed. The next day, my cakes were stolen out of my shop, and the thieves were never found. Then my bread refused to rise. For a week, every loaf of bread I made was so heavy that it fell right through the oven and into the fire. The next week, the bread rose so high that it actually floated up the chimney. I was frightened when I saw the loaves floating away across the rooftops. That was the first moment I realized I had been bewitched. It was then that I remembered the old woman who came to my shop, and I was afraid.
The next week, the old woman appeared again in my shop and demanded a baker’s dozen of the latest batch of my cookies. I was angry. How dare she show her face in my shop after all the bad luck she sent my way? I cursed her soundly and showed her the door.
Things became worse for me then. My bread soured, and my olykoeks (donuts) were a disgrace. Every cake I made collapsed as soon as it came out of the oven, and my gingerbread children and my cookies lost their flavor. Word was getting around that my bake-shop was no good, and one by one, my customers were falling away. I was angry now, and stubborn. No witch was going to defeat me. When she came to my bake-shop a third time to demand a baker’s dozen of cookies, I told her to go to the devil and I locked the door behind her.
After that day, everything I baked was either burnt or soggy, too light or too heavy. My customers began to avoid my cursed shop, even those who had come to me every day for years. Finally, my family and I were the only ones eating my baking, and my money was running out. I was desperate. I took myself to church and began to pray to Saint Nicholas, the patron Saint of merchants, to lift the witch’s curse from myself and my family.
“Come and advise me, Saint Nicholas, for my family is in dire straights and I need good counsel against this evil witch who stands against us,” I prayed. Then I trudged wearily back to my empty shop, wondering what to do.
I stirred up a batch of Saint Nicholas cookies and put them into the oven to bake, wondering how this lot would turn out. Too much cinnamon? Too little? Burnt? Under-done? To my surprise, they came out perfectly. I frosted them carefully, and put my first successful baking in weeks onto a tray where they could be seen through the window. When I looked up, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) was standing in front of me.
I knew him at once, this patron Saint of merchants, sailors, and children. He was not carrying his gold staff or wearing the red bishop’s robes and mitered hat that appeared on the figure I had just frosted on my cookies. But the white beard and the kindly eyes were the same. I was trembling so much my legs would not hold me, so I sat down on a stool and looked up at the Saint standing so near I could have touched him. His eyes regarded me with such sadness it made me want to weep.
Saint Nicholas said softly: “I spent my whole life giving money to those in need, helping the sick and suffering, and caring for little children, just as our Lord taught us. God, in his mercy, has been generous to us, and we should be generous to those around us.”
I could not bear to look into his eyes, so I buried my face in my hands.
“Is an extra cookie such a terrible price to pay for the generosity God has shown to us?” he asked gently, touching my head with his hand.
Then he was gone. A moment later, I heard the shop door open, and footsteps approached the counter. I knew before I looked up that the ugly old woman had returned to asked me for a dozen Saint Nicholas cookies. I got up slowly, counted out thirteen cookies, and gave them to the old woman, free of charge.
She nodded her head briskly. “The spell is broken,” she said. “From this time onward, a dozen is thirteen.”
And from that da
y onward, I gave generously of my baking and of my money, and thirteen was always, for me, a baker’s dozen.