As I write this, it is Christmas Eve, and NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is already performing its annual national defense duty: (that of tracking Santa on his rounds). It occurred to me that we can attempt to track Santa’s movements in antiquity—or at least those of his remains . . . .
As is well known (and which will not be detailed here), Santa Claus is a derivative from Saint Nicholas, a quite real early Christian bishop from the city of Myra in southern Asia Minor (now the city Demre, Turkey). After a ministry that spanned the Peace of the Church, defending children, caring for the people in Myra during famine, protecting sailors, saving the falsely accused, and a purported action role at the Council of Nicea in 325, Nicholas died on December 6 (now his feast day), AD 343.1 He was buried in Myra where a church was built over his tomb after his remains were said to produce a healing liquid called manna. The church itself is difficult to appreciate as it is somewhat lower than the present ground level of that part of Demre, and the entrance is covered with scaffolding as part of a long-ongoing excavation and restoration project.
There are several graves in the church, but one is specially remembered as the tomb of Nicholas and greatly revered by Eastern Orthodox, especially Russians. This post and site cannot get a “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” tag because when a cruise ship packed with Russian vacationers arrives, every bus hauls them to Demre, where they invade the church in varying states of inappropriate dress. Such was the case on my first attempt to inspect the tomb in 2011. Any hope of a decent pic of the grave was lost and even approaching it nearly futile. A modest glass barrier could not protect the top of the sarcophagus from the hands of the faithful:
On a subsequent visit in 2014, there was no cruise ship and thus no hordes of Russians having a pious moment amidst their hedonistic vacation. So, I could get a decent pic, I thought. But I noticed with amusement that the modest protective glass was replaced by a significantly stouter defensive shield:
So, why is the sarcophagus clearly broken? And why is the title of this blog post: “St. Nick’s Not-So-Final Resting Place?” And what does this have to do with tracking Santa’s (remains) movements?
As it happens, St. Nicholas’ remains are revered in churches named for him in Bari and Venice, both in Italy, and in several other places around Christendom. How did this come to be? The short version is that after Myra fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1071, the maritime powers Bari and Venice each conspired to relocate the valuable relics of the Saint to their cities. Ships from Bari arrived first in 1087 and, quite against the will of the people and church at Myra, “translated” the bones of Nicholas to their city where they are venerated in a basilica to this day. In 1099, en route to Palestine on the First Crusade, ships from Venice stopped in Myra as well. They broke through the floor of the church and found an urn labelled to contain Nicholas’ remains. They took these and others with them and back to Venice in 1101, where they are revered in a basilica to this day.2
So, who has the real St. Nicholas? Bari or Venice? Or, could his remains remain in Myra? Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 . . .
Thanks for looking!
1 For interesting and informative info on Nicholas, his history, and transformation into Santa Claus, see the St. Nicholas Center.
2 The most accessible sources are found at the St. Nicholas Center.