Today, people remember Saint Nicholas as a generous man who lived long ago in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). His superiors chose him as the bishop of Myra because of his admirable reputation. His gift-giving, miracle-working, and great wisdom combined to make people respect him as a saint even during his lifetime. He died in AD 343, at the age of seventy-three, and today, much more is known about the bones of Saint Nicholas than his life.
Scholars believe he may have been buried on the island of Gemile. It’s believed that due to Arab raids near Gemile, his faithful transported his remains to Myra in the seventh century for safe-keeping. There, Nicholas’s bones remained at peace until AD 1087, a few years before the pope launched the First Crusade to the Holy Land. Since, at that time the region of Anatolia had recently come under Turkish rule, some Christians became concerned about access the tomb and relics of Nicholas. After all, he was an important patron saint for many Christians and the loss of access to his relics would have been catastrophic.
What are relics?
Relics were the most valuable commodity in the Christian world. They included any earthly item that could be somehow connected with the saint—body parts, dried blood, clothing, actual soil, or anything else that was seen as a vehicle to channel the departed one’s power. When someone who was deemed a saint died, the belief was that they still had influence over the living. If a living person could access the relics of a saint, or even an important place that the saint had set foot, that would provide a way for the devotee to make direct contact.
From Relics to Pilgrimage Sites
Praying to saints in the presence of their relics was widely believed to bring about miracles. If the saint didn’t provide the hoped-for miracles, people took that as a sign that the saint wasn’t happy with the site of their shrine and might have to be moved elsewhere. Shrines of saints became pilgrimage sites for those who sought miracles, and pilgrimage trails wove all through medieval Europe.
The Bones are Rescued
In 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy, responded to the threat to Nicholas’s bones and came to the rescue. They elbowed aside the Greek Orthodox monks who kept the shrine in Myra and confiscated the remains. These robbers may have believed that Nicholas would truly be happier if his bones were in Bari. People seemed to always be able to justify such thefts as legitimate appropriations. It was risky business to steal part of a saint or another relic. If the saint wasn’t happy with the relocation, disaster might befall those who placed him or her there.
In those days, forgery was also a very common occurrence. It was extremely easy for someone to write that Nicholas had once visited Bari and liked the place so much that he remarked that he wanted to be interred there forever. Who could question the word of a saint? About two years after the theft/rescue, Pope Urban II placed Nicholas’s bones in the altar of his newly dedicated church/shrine in Bari.
Then, in 1096, crusaders preparing to travel to the Holy Land stopped in Myra to obtain Nicholas’s blessing. After all, he became the patron saint of sailors, as well as others. It is likely that on their return home they carried his legend back to Western Europe. The legend of Saint Nicholas was embellished with each retelling, as word-of-mouth communication always is. His lore merged with those of other regional saints and gods.
In 1100, it’s reported that Venetian sailors on their way to Palestine stopped off at Myra and liberated the less impressive, smaller bones of Nicholas that hadn’t interested the sailors from Bari thirteen years earlier.
The demand for Nicholas’s bones increased in Europe and many were located to supply the need. Venice apparently supplied most of them and clergy and nobility distributed them throughout Western Europe. A tooth here or a finger bone there were said to have made their way to Ireland and even the United States. Like with all popular saints, there always seemed to be enough relics to go around.
That’s the abbreviated version of the journeys of the bones of Saint Nicholas. Scientists last examined the bones in 1992, well before DNA testing was reliable. Because of that, no one knows if the bones in Bari, Venice, or anywhere else are from the same individual. In fact, no one is certain that the real bones of Saint Nicholas aren’t still in Myra. People may have hidden them from the tomb raiders, or misplaced them during the centuries of invasions. But, at least we still have the myth of Saint Nicholas as our gift-barer, visiting us every December around the winter solstice. And he visits on the eve of the day assigned by the early Church as the birthday of Jesus.
In 2000, the Russian government donated a bronze statue of Saint Nicholas to the Turkish town of Demre, the modern name for Myra. Then, in 2005, the town’s mayor replaced the Russian statue with a plastic Santa Claus statue—in a red winter outfit. That’s the way we picture him today thanks to Coca-Cola advertisements. This replacement outraged the Russians. The city paid attention to them and returned the bronze statue to its place of prominence.