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Dec 5, 2009

San Nicola - Italy's Original Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas (270 A.D. to 346 A.D.) was really Nicholas of Myra, a saint and bishop in Turkey. Many miracles have been attributed to him. He is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Because of this, he became the model for Santa Claus. After his death, his relics were brought to Bari. That is why is also known as Nicholas of Bari.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archrs, and children. For his help to the poor, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold.

He was born into wealth, and using his inheritance, would give anonymous gifts. People began to suspect he was the gift giver. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to Saint Nicholas. How many of us initiate a Secret Santa project in our work places and schools?

His original tomb can be found the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Myra in Turkey, but the Italians acquired his relics in the 11th century. Some say his relics were taken by thiefs or pirates. Others believe they were taken in response to a vision by which Saint Nicholas himself appeared and commanded that his relics be moved in order to preserve them from an impending Muslim conquest.At the tomb of Saint Nicholas in Bari, some observers have reported seeing myrrh exude from his relics and when using this myrrh for annointing, resulted in numerous miracles. Vials of myrrh from his relics have been taken all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Currently at Bari, there are two churches at his shrine, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox.

There is also a Venetian legend that most of the relics were actually taken to Venice (where a great church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the Lido), and only an arm was left at Bari. This tradition was overturned in the 1950s when a scientific investigation of the relics in Bari revealed a largely intact skeleton.

In Myra, the relics of Saint Nicholas exuded a clear watery liquid which smells like rose water, called manna (or myrrh), which is believed by the faithful to possess miraculous powers. After the relics were brought to Bari, they continued to do so, much to the joy of the new owners. Even up to the present day, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6th (the Saint's feast day) by the clergy of the basilica. It is however worth noting that the actual relics are entombed several feet below the floor, at sea level in a harbor town, so the occurrence of watery liquid may be explained by several theories. However, this does not stop many believers from holding to the presence of the liquid being a miraculous manifestation..


One legend surrounding Saint Nicholas tells of how a terrible famine struck and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. Another version of this story, possibly formed around the eleventh century, claims that the butcher's victims were instead three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them, and was advised by his wife to dispose of them by turning them into meat pies. The Saint saw through this and brought the men back to life.

The most famous legend, however, describes a poor man who had three daughters, but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him but being too modest to help the man in public, (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house. One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". The third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

The Roman Catholic Church has allowed for one scientific survey of the bones. In the late 1950s, during a restoration of the chapel, it permitted a team of hand-picked scientists to photograph and measure the contents of the crypt grave. In the summer of 2005, the report of these measurements was sent to a forensic laboratory in England. The review of the data revealed that the historical St. Nicholas was barely five feet in height (while not exactly small, still shorter than average, even for his time) and had a broken nose.

Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favourite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbours.

Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver. Medieval nuns used the night of December 6 to anonymously deposit baskets of food and clothes at the doorsteps of the needy. Also in medieval times, on December 6 sailors and ex-sailors would flock to the harbour towns for church celebrations. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. This and his miracle of resurrecting the three butchered children, made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and students as well.

In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing the insignia of this dignity: a red bishop's cloak, a red miter and a bishop's crozier.

The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three balls of gold.

Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurrected).

Saint Nicholas (San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari, where he is buried. Its deeply felt celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola, held on the 7-8-9 of May. On May 8, his relics are carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare). On December 6 there is a ritual called the Rito delle nubili. The same tradition is currently observed in Sassari, where during the day of Saint Nicholas, patron of the city, gifts are given to young brides who need help before getting married.

In Trieste St. Nicholas (San Nicolò) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of the 6th of December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolò during the first weeks of December. Depending on the cultural background, in some families this celebration is more important than Christmas. Trieste is a city on the sea, being one of the main ports of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is influenced mainly by Italian, Slovenian and German cultures, but also Greek and Serbian.

2 comments:

LindyLouMac said...

Fascinating account, thanks for sharing. I love the first photograph you used at the top of the item. Hope you will not mind if I try and link to this Blog from mine as I know some of my family and friends will be interested.

Perth Hotels said...

I like your blog, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archrs, and children.