St. Nicholas of Bari, ancestor of Santa Claus

St. Nicholas of Bari, also known as Saint Nicholas of Myra, St. Nicholas of Lorraine, St. Nicholas the Great, St. Niccolò and St. Nicolò (Patara in Lycia, about 270 - Myra, December 6, 343) is venerated as a saint by the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and several other Christian denominations. He is well known even outside the Christian world because his figure gave rise to the myth of Santa Claus, the Italian Babbo Natale.
St. Nicholas "Lipensky" (1294), Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod
St. Nicholas Lipensky


The charm of Nicholas is fueled by the mystery about his origins, since very little or nothing is known of his family or childhood. He was probably born in Patara in Lycia (today's Turkey), between 261 and 280, from Epiphanius and Joanna who were affluent Christians. He grew in an environment of Christian faith, but lost his parents prematurely because of the plague, and became therefore a wealthy man. About that period is dated the so-called Miracle of the three girls, masterfully represented by a painting of Sebastian Dayg (1525), as well as by Beato Angelico.

At this point however history fades into legend: a nobleman of Patara had become poor and decided to start his three daughters of marriageable age into prostitution because he could not marry them decently; Nicola learned of that situation and on three consecutive nights threw into the man's house three cloth bundles full of gold coins, so that the three girls could have a dowry. On the third night the father stayed awake to discover who the benefactor was, but Nicholas asked him not to reveal what had happened. Also for this episode he is revered as a protector of children.

Il Miracolo di San Nicola di Bari (1655), by Luca Giordano 1634-1705, Santa Brigida in Naples
St. Nicholas of Bari
Later on, Nicholas left his hometown and moved to Myra (now Demre, Turkey) where he was ordained as a priest. On the death of the metropolitan bishop of Myra, he was hailed by the people as the new bishop. Imprisoned and exiled in 305 during the persecution by Diocletian, he was later freed by Constantine in 313 and continued his apostolic activity.

It is not certain that he was one of the 318 participants at the Council of Nicea in 325: according to the tradition, however, during the Council he condemned Arianism defending the Catholic faith, and in a rush of rage he is said to have slapped Arius. The writings of Andrew of Crete, and Johannes Damascene confirm his faith was rooted in the principles of Catholic orthodoxy.

While Myra was threatened by a severe famine, some ships from Alexandria, laden with wheat, stopped at the port of Andriake on their voyage to Constantinople. Nicholas, then bishop of the town, convinced the crew to unload one hundred bushels to feed his people and assured the sailors personally they would not be punished. Once the ships got to their destination, the merchants weighed the goods and realized that grain was missing. One thousand years before Robin Hood, Nicholas of Myra took from the rich to give to the poor. The episode is told by Michael Archimandrite in the early 8th century AD in the Life of St. Nicholas (one of the oldest and most comprehensive biographies), and was painted in tempera on wood by Fra Angelico in the 15th century.

Life of San Nicola: The Miracle of the Three Girls, by Beato Angelico, Musei Vaticani
The Miracle of the Three Girls
Another famous episode in his life took place when Roman troops commanded by General Nepotianus, Ursus and Erpilion stopped at Myra during an expedition to quell a rebellion in Phrygia. The presence of soldiers in the city created riots, and in the ensuing chaos, the corrupt governor Eustathius agreed to condemn to death the three innocent generals. The execution was stopped by the bishop personally. However, upon their return to Constantinople, the three generals who had quelled the uprising were hailed as winners and this aroused the jealousy of the prefect Ablabius who organized a conspiracy, took them prisoners and sentenced them to death without trial.
San Nicola Saves three generals sentenced to death, by Beato Angelico, Musei Vaticani
St. Nicholas of Bari
The three remembered the Bishop of Myra and implored his help: at night Nicholas appeared in a dream to both the prefect and the emperor threatening them of dire punishments if they had harmed the three innocent men. Once released, the three generals went to Myra to say thanks to their saviour, an event represented in a painting by Corrado Giaquinto in 1746. Nicholas died at Myra on December 6, presumably in the year 343.


St. Nicholas' cult spread first in Asia Minor (in the 4th century 25 churches in Constantinople were in his name), with pilgrimages to his tomb, located outside the town of Myra. Numerous writings in Greek and Latin witness the growing veneration in the Byzantine-Slavic area and in Western Europe, to Rome and southern Italy, at the time under Byzantium. During the Middle Ages St. Nicholas had become one of the most popular saints of Christianity and the hero of many legends concerning miracles in favor of the poor and deprived. The relics of St. Nicholas are now preserved in Bari, Venice, Saint-Nicolas- de-Port (Lorraine, France) and Bucharest.

The Translation to Bari

Until 1087 his remains were preserved in the cathedral of Myra; then when the city fell under Muslim rule, Bari and Venice, direct rivals in maritime trade with the East, competed for the translation of the relics of the saint.

An expedition of 62 sailors from Bari, among them two priests, Lupo and Grimoldo, with three ships belonging to the Dottula family, reached Myra and took away about half the skeleton of Nicholas, who arrived in Bari on May 9, 1087. According to legend, the relics were deposited where the oxen that pulled the wagon stopped, exactly at a Benedictine church (now the Church of St. Michael the Archangel) in the custody of abbot Elijah, who would later become bishop of Bari, The abbot, however, promoted the building of a new church dedicated to the saint, which was consecrated two years later by Pope Urban II at the time of the final placement of the relics under the crypt altar.

Since then, Saint Nicholas became co-patron of Bari along with San Sabino and the dates of December 6 (the day of the saint's death) and 9 May (the day of the arrival of the relics) were declared festive for the city. Until the 19th century, the saint's crest was also present in the coat of arms of Bari.

The Translation to Venice

Venice shares with Bari the custody of the relics of St. Nicholas. The Venetians, in fact, had not quietly accepted the expeditions of the Barisans, and in 1099-1100, during the First Crusade, they landed in Myra, where they were shown the empty tomb from which their rivals had stolen the saint's bones. However, someone remembered that the most important ceremonies used to be celebrated in another location. And there the Venetians found a large number of minute fragments of bones that Barisans had been unable to take. These relics were translated to the abbey of St. Nicholas, Lido of Venice.

St. Nicholas was then proclaimed protector of the Venetian fleet, and his church became an important place of veneration. Since St. Nicholas was also the protector of sailors, and the church was located at the port of Lido, where the lagoon ended into the open sea, at that site the annual ritual of the Wedding of the Sea ended. Only in recent times the authenticity of the Venetian remains was however finally established.

The transfer to Lorraine

In 1087 a relic of the saint, his right hand raised in blessing (the phalanx of the right hand) was brought to the village of Port in Lorraine from Bari by the lord of the place, Aubert de Varangéville. Since then, the village was named Saint-Nicolas-de-Port and in 1093 a first church was built there, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, who also became the patron saint of Lorraine.

A famous miracle is connected to St. Nicholas in Lorraine. Around 1230, Cunon de Réchicourt, a knight from Lorraine fighting in the Sixth Crusade with the army of Emperor Frederick II of Swabia, was taken prisoner. He said that on December 5, 1240 he prayed St. Nicholas before falling asleep in his cell. In the morning he woke up, still chained, on the steps of the church of Saint-Nicolas- de-Port, where the chains fell from him during celebration of a Mass. Since then, every year on the Saturday before the feast of St. Nicholas, a procession is celebrated in memory of the "miracle."

At the end of the 15th century to thank St. Nicholas for having saved the Duchy of Lorraine against the Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold, Duke René II of Lorraine rebuilt the church in the city of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, which in 1481 became a majestic Gothic basilica almost as big as Notre-Dame de Paris.

In 1622 Duke Henry II of Lorraine obtained from Pope Gregory XV (1621-1623) the erection of a church for his subjects living in Rome. This baroque church is located near Piazza Navona, and is called the Church of St. Nicholas of Lorraine.

In almost any city or village in Lorraine on the 5th or 6th of December a parade is held in honor of St. Nicholas, who traditionally visits the homes on the night between 5 and 6 December, often accompanied by his donkey, offering sweets and candies to the children who sing the "lament of St. Nicholas". In the German-speaking area of Lorraine Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus) is traditionally accompanied by his assistant Rüpelz or Ruprecht (= bugbear).


Saint Nicholas, celebrated on December 6 and 9 May, is represented with a pastoral staff (symbol of the bishopric), traditional bishop robes with miter and crozier, and three bags of coins (or three gold balls) in connection to the legend of the dowry given to the three girls. In the coat of arms of Collescipoli (province of Terni) he is represented on horseback with a child behind him.

St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, lenders and prisoners. He is also the patron saint of the city of Amsterdam, of Russia, of Lungro capital of continental Arbereshe. In Russian Orthodox churches St. Nicholas is often the third icon next to Christ and Mary with Child Jesus.

Myths and legends behind Santa Claus

A Visit from St. Nicholas, commonly known from its opening words - "Twas the night before Christmas", is a famous American poem, published for the first time in 1823 anonymous, but officially attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The poem described St. Nicholas wearing a red dress trimmed with white fur, as a cheerful gentleman with rosy-cheeks.

Moore's poem is a key piece in the composite puzzle that gave rise to the figure of the modern Santa Claus: the subsequent depictions of the character were in fact strongly influenced by this text, which has also contributed to inextricably and finally associate the gift bearer to December 24 to 25 instead of December 6, the day dedicated to St. Nicholas, and also to separate the figure of Saint Nicholas from that of his heir Santa Claus.

Actually, all modern versions of Santa Claus are derived from the St. Nicholas of Bari, bishop of Myra, who was said to have found and revived five children kidnapped and killed by an innkeeper, and was therefore considered a protector of children.

The legend of St. Nicholas is at the base of the great Dutch feast of Sinterklaas (on the saint's birthday December 6) which gave rise to the myth and the name of Santa Claus in its different variants. In Europe (particularly in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the north-eastern part of Italy) Santa Claus is still represented with a bishop's robes.

Before Christianity, in Germany god Odin (Wodan) was said every year to take a great hunt at the period of the winter solstice (Yule), accompanied by the other gods and dead warriors. Traditionally, children would leave their boots near the fireplace, filling them with carrots, straw or sugar to feed Sleipnir, the god's flying horse. In return, Odin would replace the food with gifts or candy. This practice survived in Belgium and the Netherlands also in the Christian era, and was coupled with the figure of Saint Nicholas. Even in appearance, a bearded mysterious old man, Odin, although devoid of an eye, was similar to St. Nicholas.

The German tradition reached the United States through the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, renamed by the British as New York in the 17th century, and is the origin of the modern habit to hang a stocking by the fireplace for Christmas, a similar tradition to what is customary in Italy on the eve of January 6, for the arrival of the Befana.

Another folk tradition of the Germanic tribes tells the story of a holy man (sometimes identified with Saint Nicholas) struggling with a demon, which may have been the devil, a troll or Krampus, or with a Dark Man who killed during dreams (Blackman or Pitchman). Some legends tell of a monster that scared people creeping into houses through the chimney at night, attacking and killing children in horrible ways. The holy man set out in search of the demon and imprisoned him with magical or blessed bars. Obliged to obey the saint's orders, the demon is forced to move from house to house and amend himself by bringing gifts to children. In some stories, the good deed is repeated every year, in others the demon is so disgusted that he prefers to return to hell.

Other versions of the story have the demon converted to the orders of the saint, who gathers around himself other elves and goblins, thus becoming Santa Claus. A different Dutch version says that the saint is helped by Moorish slaves, usually represented by the character of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), an analogue of Italian "Uomo nero". In these stories Zwarte Piet beats children with a cane or kidnaps them to bring them into his sack to Spain (Andalusia was a time under Moorish dominion). In Germany, this character becomes Pelznickel or Belsnickle (Furry Nicholas, a beast completely covered with fur) who goes to visit naughty children in their sleep.