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San Nicolo di Bari - The Original Santa Claus
It seems that the month of December is the time of gift giving regardless of your religious affiliation or nationality. This is especially true in the United States, where the image of Santa Claus is emblazoned everywhere starting in late November. Other countries have their own version of a benevolent older gentleman who gives out gifts in December known as Father Christmas. Whatever you call him, be it Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, or even Santa Claus, the kindly gift-giving figure of December has its roots in a real man, the original Saint Nicholas - known in Italy as San Nicolo di Bari.
You may ask what this Christian saint has to do with Italy, but the Adriatic port city of Bari is in fact the final resting place of Saint Nicholas (San Nicolo). Long before San Nicolo's image was transformed into the American Santa Claus, he was venerated as the patron saint of children, merchants and sailors among other things. Much of the life of San Nicolo is legendary, but there is enough evidence to prove that such a man existed. Moreover, if even some of the legends told about his kindness are true, then there is plenty to fuel his continued veneration over the centuries. It was the dedication to this saint during a tumultuous period of history that led to his bones being transported to Bari, where they lie to this day.
San Nicolo - His Life
San Nicolo di Bari began life in the late third century AD as the son of a wealthy Christian family in Patara, a Greek-speaking colony of the Roman Empire located in modern Turkey. There is little historical documentation of his early life, but it is known that he became Bishop of Myra while a young man. His life as a cleric spanned through the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian and later Galerius to the eventual legalization of Christianity by Constantine. During that time span, San Nicolo is known to have destroyed pagan temples in his diocese and participated in the pivotal Council of Nicea in 325 AD where he spoke out against the Arian heresy. One legend claims that San Nicolo slapped the heretic Bishop Arius in the face during the Council. This is a rare case of the saint showing a temper as most legends and tales attributed to San Nicolo are of the gentler kind.
San Nicolo was said to have saved the life of a sailor at sea during a voyage to Alexandria in Egypt, and may be the reason why he is the patron saint of sailors. San Nicolo was also said to have saved three innocent men from the executioner's sword and in some of the more fanciful legends, restored murder children to life. The most famous of all the legends attributed to San Nicolo became the basis for much of his modern day popularity as a gift-giver.
There are numerous versions of this legend but they all begin with a poor man that could not afford dowries for his three daughters, and thus they would never be suitable for marriage. With no other opportunities available, the poor man was considering forcing his daughters into prostitution (some versions say they were going to be sold into slavery). When San Nicolo caught wind of this horrible situation, he decided to use his inherited wealth to help the three young women. On three separate occasions late at night San Nicolo secretly tossed bags of gold through an open window of the poor man's house. According to one version of the legend, they landed in shoes or stockings that were drying by the fire. The first two sacks of gold allowed for a proper dowry for the two eldest daughters, but the poor man wanted to find out who the mysterious gift-giver was. In some versions, the poor man catches San Nicolo in the act, only to have the pious saint-to-be credit God with the gift. However, there is another version of the story that says San Nicolo knew of the poor man's plan and instead of the window, he dropped the third sack of gold down the chimney. After providing the dowries for the three daughters, the generosity of San Nicolo began to spread. It seems that any anonymous gift done in his diocese at Myra was attributed to San Nicolo.
San Nicolo - Veneration after Death
San Nicolo is said to have died of old age on December 6 in 343 AD, a rarity in a time when most saints were martyred. His bones were laid in a Greek sarcophagus in the cathedral of Myra, which became a popular pilgrimage site shortly after his death. For over seven hundred years San Nicolo's relics lay in Myra, however the city was then conquered by the Seljuk Turks, threatening the safety of the pilgrimage site. In 1087, sailors from Bari arrived in Myra and stole the bones from the church in a race against Venetian sailors who wanted to do the same. On May 9, 1087 the sailors returned to Bari with the holy relics of San Nicolo, where in 1089 they were placed in a new crypt by Pope Urban II. The people of Bari built an enormous Basilica over his bones, which now directed pilgrims to Southern Italy instead of Asia Minor. With a much safer pilgrimage route, San Nicolo became one of Western Europe's most popular saints starting in the Middle Ages and continuing to this day.
In Eastern Europe (especially Russia) and among other Orthodox Christians, San Nicolo was already immensely popular and even without his relics, Myra (modern Demre) continues to be a pilgrimage site for them. However, the city of Bari is often inundated with waves of Russian pilgrims, who desire to pray as close to their favorite saint as possible. In the late 19th century, Nicholas II the last Russian Czar made a pilgrimage to the crypt and donated money to help restore both his current resting place as well as his former tomb in Myra.
Not only was San Nicolo a gift-giver in life, but even in death his bones would produce a clear liquid called Manna. This mysterious liquid is said to have healing powers and was once collected from his relics on the anniversary of his death, known as St. Nicholas day on the Catholic Calendar. Today the manna is collected on May 8, during Bari's three-day festival to celebrate the arrival of San Nicolo to Bari over nine hundred years ago.
San Nicolo - How Did He Become Santa Claus?
So how did this pious and generous saint become a jolly fat man that delivers presents on Christmas Eve? The origin of the American Santa Claus stems from the traditions surrounding San Nicolo, however it came in the form of the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. As stated above, San Nicolo was one of Europe's most popular saints, and traditions of gift giving on December 5, the eve of his feast day were widespread. The Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas gets its name from a shortened version of San Nicolo's name in Dutch - Sint Nikolaas and he is portrayed wearing the robes of a Catholic Bishop. This tradition was brought over by Dutch settlers to their colony of New Amsterdam and when the British took over the settlement, which later became New York City, they also took on the tradition of the gift giving Sinterklaas. The new settlers mispronounced the Dutch name, and so Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.
As the Santa Claus myth grew, the character became an entity unique to American culture and started to resemble the historical San Nicolo less and less. Even though the Santa Claus tradition is so far removed from the veneration of San Nicolo, the most important parts have never changed. Both San Nicolo and Santa Claus are devoted to children and both are kind gift giving figures known for their charity and selflessness. San Nicolo di Bari left such a mark during his life that his deeds of kindness ring true through the centuries regardless of how his image is portrayed.
by Justin Demetri