No, not the jolly old elf from 1930’s Coca-Cola magazine ads, but the real St. Nick himself. His bones and sarcophagus are held and revered in the lower level of a church in Southern Italy and attract hundreds of pilgrims and curious visitors every day.
During my recent trip to Puglia, a beautiful olive and wine producing region that occupies the heel of the Italian peninsula, I came to understand how important St. Nicholas is to the people who live here. And as I learned more about him, it became clear that calling Santa ‘Saint Nick” makes sense.
I got the short-hand version of the story while we were touring the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari with a friend who lives there and was actually married in the church.
“A bunch of Baresi sailors snuck over and stole him from Turkey,” he told us, before moving on to rave about where to get the best focaccia in town. Since the focaccia in Bari is indeed heavenly when served hot from the oven, I was inclined to take his brief history of San Nicola as the gospel truth.
But there is a little bit more to the story.
The Bishop of Myra
Nicholas was born to a rich family in the Lycian town of Myra around 270. It was an ancient Greek area that is now part of Turkey. There are few records of Nicholas' work as a Christian Bishop, but centuries later written accounts began to appear of astounding incidents during his lifetime.
In one of the most retold stories, Nicholas rescued three girls who were to be sold into prostitution because their parents were too poor to arrange a dowry. He saved each girl by secretly dropping a sack of gold coins through their chimney and putting gold into a stocking that had been hung by the fireplace to dry.
The father of the girls was indeed surprised when this happened two nights in a row and on the third night he wanted to find out who was behind these gifts. He waited up and discovered Nicholas dropping the gold into the last girls’ stocking.
Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, did not want attention given to what he had done, and begged the father not to reveal his secret. But soon word spread of what had happened, and later whenever someone received a secret gift, it was attributed to Nicholas.
Other legends involved him calming a storm at sea, saving innocent soldiers form execution, chopping down a tree possessed by the devil and even resurrecting three murdered children pickled in brine by a butcher who was saving them to sell as pork during the next famine.
During his lifetime Nicholas was imprisoned as part of the last persecution of Christians in the Roman empire. He also made an arduous pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine and likely attended the first council of Nicaea in 325. This was the council of Christian Bishops convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine to reach consensus on a uniform Christian doctrine.
After his death on December 6, 343 AD the stories of his generosity and the miracles he performed during this lifetime were told and retold. The legends surrounding him began to grow. So much so, that a church was built on the same site in Myra where Nicholas served as Bishop. His remains were placed within a sarcophagus in the church for eternity.
Sailors adopted him as their patron saint, although he was also the patron of merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. But it was mostly sailors who spread the stories of his secret gift giving and the miracles he performed during his life. They propagated a cult like following of St. Nicholas, worshiping him as a saint and he became one of the most loved figures in Christendom.
His corpse, like that of other saints, was said to have mystical powers. Believers pointed to the bones of Nicholas and claimed not only did they not decay,but also that they exuded an oozing liquid called ‘manna’ or ‘myrrh’ which had a scent like a rose and possessed potent healing powers. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb in Myra.
The Bari Connection
And now we come to Bari in the sunny Spring of 1087. The city had been captured by a group of Normans who wanted to compete with Venice, which had stolen the bones of Saint Mark from Alexandria centuries earlier.
News arrived that Myra had fallen to the Turks and was in disarray. And so began a scene that might make a good Indiana Jones sequel. It was time to put Bari on the map by stealing a saint for themselves.
According to records kept by a Barise clerk at the time, three ships sailed from Bari to Myra and forty-seven well-armed Baresi invaded the church of Saint Nicholas, tied up the Monks protecting the tomb and smashed into Nicholas’ sarcophagus.
According to the account, they "found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting from the bones.” They snatched the whole sarcophagus and returned triumphantly to Bari in early May, 1087 to be celebrated as heroes. They became famous and received a percentage of the offerings given to the San Nicola each year.
The Basilica di San Nicola was built to house the stolen remains. To this day it is a major pilgrimage site in Southern Italy. I visited the lower level of this church where St. Nicholas’ tomb is located and even after more than a millennium, his influence persists. There was an eerie, deeply spiritual sense and I would even say mystical feeling in the lower level of the church on the day I visited.
How did St. Nicholas become Santa Clause?
Through the ages St. Nicholas was associated with gift giving and miracles, especially on December 6, his feast day or the night before, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. In Northern Europe in the 16th Century, reverence towards saints was discouraged as part of the reformation and St. Nicholas took on a variety of other names, including Father Christmas and Kris Kringle. However his feast day on December 6 remained the day for Christmas gift giving.
The Dutch took to calling him Sinterklass, which in English became Santa Claus. In the 1823 famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas which all parents know started with ’Twas the Night before Christmas...’ became popular and restored interest in St. Nicholas. It was widely published with evolving artistic interpretations of of St. Nicholas.
In Bari, the Festa di San Nicola is one of the grandest celebrations in Southern Italy, spanning the first ten days of May. It celebrates the arrival of his relics from Turkey. During the festival, an icon of San Nicola is paraded through the streets of Bari Vecchia (the old part of the city where the Basilica is located). The next day a statue of San Nicola is taken out to sea accompanied by a flotilla of boats. This is followed by a day of religious services, and after the last Mass there are fireworks and reveling long into the night.
Bari is a long way from the North Pole. But it is the resting place for the man who helped define and inspire Santa Claus.
And every now and then it even snows there.