Every country or region of the world seems to have its own little Santa Claus story. Whether it is the name Saint Nick, or the trend of bringing gifts to children, you will surely find a saint figure in each culture that fits a Santa Claus story. Even Italy has its own Santa Claus story, no not Befana, but their own Saint Nick: San Nicola. A saint with many names: Saint Nicholas of Myra, St. Nicholas of Lorraine, St. Nicholas the Great, St. Niccolò, and St. Nicolò, he is the patron saint of Bari today.
Who was San Nicola?
San Nicola lived between the 3rd and 4th century, but not in Italy, he was born in Greece and passed away in Turkey, along the southern coast. He grew up an orphan, left with a fair inheritance from his late parents. While, some of his life is clouded in myth, it is hard to know the truth about his saintly acts.
One of his most famous, and the first kindness he showed was the “Miracle of Three Girls”. Supposedly a family had fallen into poverty and the father asked his three daughters to go into prostitution. Saint Nicola heard this and secretly gave three bags of gold coins to act as dowries for the girl. It was this act that earned him the title protector of children and brings in the tradition of gift-giving. Another story that earned him the title was when he supposedly revived three children. It was said an innkeeper kidnapped and killed the children, and was pickling them to sell as pork during a period of a terrible famine. San Nicola discovered the plot and was able to bring the children back to life.
After this, he went on to become a priest, then bishop was persecuted under Diocletian, welcomed back into the Empire under Constantine.
Eventually, he ended up in the town of Myra,- along the coast of Turkey, as a Bishop. During his time in Myra, the city was facing a terrible famine. One day ships carrying wheat and other food sources stopped in the port of Myra, Nicola was able to convince the crew to unload a portion of their load and give it to the poor of Myra. They did so, fearing what would happen when the product was weighed at its final destination, but when they arrived they found it magically weighed the same. This particular story reminds us of Robin Hood, stealing, or rather coercing from the rich and giving back to the less fortunate.
After his death, admiration for the saint spread throughout Asia-Minor reaching into Slavic areas, and eventually even further.
How did San Nicola end up in Bari?
The community of Bari had long admired the saint, and when Turkey fell to Muslim rule, the city sent many sailors to take the relics from Myra to Bari. They succeeded in 1087, bringing half of the saint’s skeleton to the city and building a new Basilica in his honor. They did this all without authorization, and in fact, to this day Turkey has occasionally requested the relics be returned. The other half of his skeleton went to Venice, it was stolen from Turkey during the First Crusade.
It is a popular legend in Bari, and surrounding Puglia, that Saint Nicholas did come to Bari when we was alive and predicted his bones would come to lay there.
A miracle that continues to occur around his relics is the production of Myrrh or Manna, this substance still comes from his remains. Every year, still today, on the 6th of December, a flask of the substance is extracted. The liquid seeps out of the tomb, though it is unclear if it is from the body or the tomb itself.
So what does this all have to do with Italy’s Santa Claus?
The idea of a visit from St. Nicholas first appeared in the 19th century, in the famous poem The Night Before Christmas, here is where our first image of Santa as we know him today occurred. Modern stories and depictions of Santa Claus all seem to tie back into the stories of St. Nicholas of Bari, Bishop of Myra.
If we look at the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas, it is a feast held on the saint’s birthday on December 6. In most European countries (for example the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Northern Italy) Santa Claus is still represented with a bishop’s robes.
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Italy’s Other Holiday Saints
December sees the celebration of the Virgin Mary (December 8th), the birth of Christ, which weaves into San Nicola, but there are two other important saints of the month. Santa Lucia is celebrated on December 13th. In certain regions in the North of Italy, this is the common day to receive gifts left by Santa Lucia. However, rather than leaving her milk and cookies, she needs coffee, wine, and a carrot for her donkey (sounds way more reasonable than milk). Then the day after Christmas Italy celebrates Santo Stefano. Saint Stephen was said to have been the first Christian Martyr, and this day is celebrated by going out and sending well wishes around the neighborhood, visiting nativity scenes, more feasts, and giving donations.