During Christmastime in Italy and America, children await the coming of the unofficial mascot of the holiday season, the jolly man in the red suit. Whether you know him as Father Christmas, Babbo Natale or 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.
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. 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 di Bari began life in the late third century as the son of a wealthy Christian family in Patara, a colony of the Roman Empire. 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 to the eventual legalization of Christianity by Roman Emperor 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, where he spoke out against the Arian heresy.
San Nicolo was said to have saved the life of a sailor at sea during a voyage to Alexandria in Egypt, thus becoming the patron saint of sailors. San Nicolo was also said to have saved three innocent men from the executioner’s sword and to have brought dying children back 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 all begin with a poor man that could not afford dowries for his three daughters, therefore making them unsuitable for marriage. With no other opportunities available, the poor man was considering forcing his daughters into slavery. When San Nicolo heard 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 future saint credit God for the acts of kindness. 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. Anonymous gifts began to appear throughout the town of Myra, all of which were attributed to San Nicolo.
San Nicolo is said to have died of old age on December 6 in 343, a rarity in a time when most saints were martyred. His bones were laid in a sarcophagus in the Cathedral of Myra, which became a popular pilgrimage site shortly after his death. For over 700 years, San Nicolo’s relics lay in Myra until its safety was threatened by invaders. 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 directs pilgrims to southern Italy. 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.
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 December 6. Today, the Manna is collected on May 8, during Bari’s three-day festival to celebrate the arrival of San Nicolo to Bari over 900 years ago.
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. Since he was one of Europe’s most popular saints, traditions of gift giving on December 5, the eve of his feast day, were widespread. In Dutch, Saint Nicolo was known as Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas for short and was always depicted wearing the red robe of a Catholic Bishop. Dutch settlers brought the traditions of their favorite saint to their colony of New Amsterdam, which later became New York City. They also took on the tradition of the gift giving Sinterklaas and as new settlers mispronounced the Dutch name, Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.
Even though the legend of Santa Claus is far removed from the real life of San Nicolo, the two share important similarities. 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 kindnesses rang true through the centuries, which made him the inspiration for the most beloved figure of the Christmas season, Santa Claus.