Saint Nicholas is the historical inspiration for our modern day Santa Claus and Christmas traditions. He was also a Turkish necromancer and the patron saint of children, sailors and prostitutes. Oh, and his bones are leaking.
A collection of St. Nicholas bones on display in the Antalya Museum in Turkey. These relics were given to Turkish authorities by an Italian woman in 1925.
When you and I collect human remains, we’re considered weird and creepy. When the church does it, the bones are venerated as holy relics.
But often, as evidenced by the history of the catacomb saints, no one knows who those bones actually belong to.
In this case, the bones in question are said to be the remains of the 4th century do-gooder known as St. Nicholas, a Turkish bishop who brought dead children back to life and saved young women from a life of prostitution.
His acts of generosity (and necromancy?) were so legendary that St. Nicholas inspired our modern day Santa Claus.
But, as is often the case with historical figures, his corpse is of great concern to us. He died a long time ago, and though no one really knows what became of him after, there are numerous churches claiming to possess the remains of jolly old St. Nick.
Are the relics of St. Nicholas entombed in a crypt in Bari, where they leak an oily substance that eager crowds consume for healing?
Or is what’s left of Kris Kringle – a fragment of his holy pelvis – residing in a church in Morton Grove, Illinois?
Here’s what we know.
Historical Santa Claus
The name of our modern Christmas deity, Santa Claus, was derived from Sinterklaas, the Dutch name for St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a bishop of Myra, a Roman town in what is now modern day Turkey. The miraculous and charitable acts of St. Nicholas were well-known in his time.
It is said that he made anonymous donations of gold coins to a poor family as a dowry, saving the daughters from a life of slavery and prostitution. Nicholas tossed the coins into the house through a window, and they landed in shoes and stockings that had been hung up to dry.
A medieval tradition grew around this story, leading to the gift-giving custom of St. Nicholas Eve on December 5th.
In another legend, there was a butcher who was making a living by luring children into his home to murder them, cut them up and sell them in barrels as food during a time of great famine. When an angel told St. Nicholas of these atrocities, the bishop went to the butcher’s home just in time to restore life to three boys before they could be eaten.
You’d think having your Christmas ham get up and walk away would actually ruin your holiday traditions, but here we are.
Saint Nicholas even attended the Council of Nicea, the gathering, presided over by Emperor Constantine in the year 325 where the first uniform Christian doctrine was debated over and decided upon by some 300 bishops to determine the official canon of the Christian religion.
During the synod, a delegate from Alexandria named Arius argued the heretical belief that God and Jesus were not the same being. According to Arius, God the Father bestowed power onto his son, making Jesus his first creation. This meant they were individual beings, and that God had greater divinity.
Infuriated by these claims, Nicholas slapped Arius in the face. Shocked by this display, the other bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments and jailed him.
According to the story, Nicholas spent the night in chains praying for forgiveness. When the jailer visited him in the morning, Nicholas was free of his shackles and fully dressed in his robes again.
When Constantine heard about this incident, he ordered Nicholas to be freed and fully reinstated as the bishop of Myra.
Upon his death, commonly accepted as December 6 of roughly 343 AD, St. Nicholas was interred inside a stone tomb in the church where he served.
As tales of his works spread in the centuries after, his legend grew and he became known as the patron saint of prostitutes, sailors, travelers, thieves and children. Christians made pilgrimages to his tomb.
The tomb of St. Nicholas, the historical inspiration for Santa Claus, in the ruins of a 4th century church in Turkey.
In 1071, the church was damaged during an attack from Muslim invaders. Fearful that harm may come to St. Nicholas’ remains, Italian sailors broke open his sarcophagus and stole his bones away to Bari where they believed they would be safe.
The damaged tomb can still be seen today in the ruins of a Byzantine church in Demre, Turkey.
St Nicholas Bones in Bari
Professor Luigi Martino examines the skull of St. Nicholas
The stolen bones were interred in a crypt in the Basilica di San Nicola in 1089 by Pope Urban II, and were undisturbed for almost 900 years.
The crypt wasn’t opened again until 1953 when the bones were removed for safe keeping while the church underwent restoration.
Inside the crypt, the Pontifical Commission appointed for the task found many bones and a nearly complete cranium determined to have belonged to one man who had been over the age of 70. Nicholas was believed to be 75 when he died.
The manna of St. Nicholas
Mysteriously, there seemed to be a sweet-smelling, oily liquid oozing from St. Nicholas’ bones.
Even more mysteriously, the church decided the liquid was holy and imbued with healing properties.
They dubbed it Manna di S. Nicola or santa manna – the Manna of Saint Nicholas – and crowds gather annually to receive healing from the manna which is ceremoniously extracted from the crypt during a celebration on May 9th called the Feast of the Translation.
Translation is the term given to the relocation of relics. In this case, it is referring to the bones being taken from Myra to Bari.
The manna is gathered during this celebration.
Extraction of the Holy manna during the Feast of the Translation in Bari
The bones only excrete about 50ml of liquid annually, so the manna is mixed into holy water and then sold in small, decorative glass bottles with the image of Nicholas hand painted by local artists.
But what, exactly, is this manna?
Scientists at the University of Bari tested the substance in 1925. They determined it was nothing more than water. Probably just condensation produced inside the tomb.
A crypt beneath the altar where the bones of St. Nicholas reside at Basilica di San Nicola in Bari
The Other Relics of St. Nicholas
Relics – bones or mummified remains of Catholic saints, or objects they may have come in contact with in life or death – come in many shapes and sizes.
They are usually contained in ornate reliquaries made of gold or covered in precious gems, and can take the shape of anything from boxes, to arms, to life size sculptures of the saint.
And they rarely come with any provenance.
Saint Nicholas, for example, isn’t exclusive to Bari. Apparently he has pieces scattered across the globe.
According to the St. Nicholas Center, a Catholic institution dedicated to the legacy of St. Nicholas, there are dozens of churches around the world claiming to possess teeth, phalanges and other bone fragments of the saint.
This reliquary at Sint-Niklaaskerk in Belgium contains a “particle” of St. Nicholas
Chiesa di San Nicoló al Lido in Venice is considered by the St. Nicholas Center to have the second major depository of St. Nicholas bones, a collection of pieces left behind by the sailors in the Myra tomb.
In 1925, an Italian woman gave Turkish authorities a case containing five fragments of St. Nicholas’ bones that can be seen today in the Antalya museum.
A piece of bone with the saint’s face carved into it has been passed down through the Poveromo family, descendents of one of those original sailors, for 900 years.
To complicate things even further, archaeologists identified a tomb in 2017 they believe could be the true grave of St. Nicholas beneath the intricately tiled mosaic floor of a church in Turkey’s Antalya province.
“His alleged teeth and finger bones are cherished relics in over a dozen churches in places including Russia, France, and the Palestinian territories,” Brian Handwerk wrote for National Geographic. “Notable among them was New York City’s St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, which was destroyed during the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The relics were never recovered.”
It is worth noting that, while stories of leaking manna go back to Nicholas’ early days as a dead guy in Myra, none of these other relics seem to exude any kind of magic liquid.
The Merry Pelvis of Santa Claus
Until an arctic expedition uncovers a gleaming sarcophagus of ice that was carved from elves and decorated with candy canes and popcorn garland, we may never know which, if any, of these remains actually belong to the real Saint Nicholas
But it was another 2017 discovery that has provided the best evidence so far.
St. Martha of Bethany Church & Shrine of All Saints in the town of Morton Grove, Illinois is home to a collection of relics representing more than 3000 saints. Among them is a fragment of pubic bone that Father Dennis O’Neill acquired from a seller on ebay.
An order of nuns in Lyon, France called the Poor Clares supposedly sold the bone to the anonymous relics dealer, who previously sold alleged relics of St. Francis of Assisi, Joan of Arc, John the Baptist, and even pieces of the cross Jesus was crucified on.
“O’Neill purchased the bone from the collector as part of a lot that also included burial fabrics supposedly from St. Colette of Corbie (1381-1447) and St. John Francis Regis (1597-1640), a mandible supposedly from St. Christina (who lived during the third century) and two teeth supposedly from St. Fiacre (who died around 640),” Live Science reported. “O’Neill said he didn’t remember how much he paid for the relics, but thought that altogether it may only have been $100 or $200.”
“It’s a sin to sell relics,” O’Neill said. “It can be a virtue to rescue them if you’re rescuing them back for the church.”
(Editor’s note: I’m in the market for cheap relics too, for my…um…church…if anyone happens to have any pieces of saints lying around.)
The pelvis bone of St. Nicholas
Regardless of its dubious origins, this Santa pelvis may be the real deal.
Researchers determined this particular bone has been venerated for 1,700 years, and, unlike other relics, a recent study supports the claim that it could belong to St. Nicholas.
Oxford researchers performed radiocarbon testing of the bone. They dated it to the 4th century, placing it in the correct era.
This is of particular interest because typically, when relics are tested, they turn out to be much too recent. These results at least show that this bone is from the right period of time, making its authenticity much more likely.
“The bone just tested is a pelvic bone, from the left pubis,” the St. Nicholas Center wrote of the study. “Bari has the left ilium (the upper part of the bone), but not the full pelvis. Venice also has fragments of pelvic bones. This newly tested bone, from the lower part of the bone, is believed to very possibly belong to the same skeleton as the Bari and Venice bones.”
Future DNA testing could determine if any of supposed relics of St. Nicholas belong to the same person.
In the meantime, Morton Grove holds the best claim to our dearly departed Father Christmas.