On the eleventh day of April in the year 1087, three ships pulled into the harbor of Andriake, port to the ancient town of Myra. This southwestern corner of Asia Minor was a prosperous trading post, routinely receiving merchant sailors from around the known world. The three ships presently docking at its coast, however, did not appear to be manned by merchants. Two figures emerged from the ponderous wooden frame of the central vessel. They were Jerusalem pilgrims the crew had picked up at Antioch, one Greek, the other French. They started for the outskirts of Myra, rounding off the hills and surveying twilight-colored fields. Returning to port, their demeanor was enough confirmation—all the same, one of them raised his voice to rehearse what Italian he had picked up on board, “non ci sono turchi.”
With this, the boats revealed their cargo: a multitude of pilgrims, forty-seven in all, disembarked in rows, walking with processional dignity through the port, towards the center of Myra. It was the basilica that interested them, fortunate storehouse of the body of one of the most revered saints in all of Christendom, St. Nicholas.
Sv. Mikuláš (St. Nicholas) by Jaroslav Čermák (1831-1878), located in the Galerie Art Praha.
The four custodians of the basilica scrambled to attend so large a party as now confronted them. The newcomers asked to see the grave of the holy confessor Nicholas, for they had come to pray at his relics. The guardians showed the pilgrims where oblation was made, but this did not satisfy the group, which wanted to make sure the sight was not merely nominal, and that the holy body was not being kept in some hidden vault. This, however, aroused suspicion in the guardians. Why such vehemence? And, anyway, what use is it to know, when veneration can be offered at the saint’s wonder-working icon, for example? Could it be that these were thieves, looking to grave-rob so venerable a house of supplication? If it were so, said the four, imprudently, perhaps, but bravely, and being all of one mind, they would sooner die than permit so vile a desecration! At this, the forty-seven discarded their pilgrim’s robes, laying bare their weapons and intentions: a regiment of sailors now stood before the guards—sword-wielding men of the sea, and they had come for the body of St. Nicholas!
It would all be in vain, however, for the saint would not allow himself to be taken from his Anatolian home, so spoke the guards: leave his home of almost one thousand years, preposterous! And, anyway, where might these pirates, these rough blasphemers, seek to take him? Bari, they said, for they were Apulians, hailing from Italy. And to this they added—recalling the saying that the good can be served by deceit if it harms no one—that the Pope himself, when his holiness last visited their city, had organized the present expedition after being visited by St. Nicholas in a dream. Still, ships sail not on good will alone, this they knew, and so would offer the guards a generous payment for their troubles. This the honorable four refused, whereupon they tried to escape the thieves, running for the basilica’s doors that they might warn the city of the crime befalling it. Alas, the forty-seven were upon them, and made short work of restraining them.
While the party discussed how best to proceed, one of the two priests who was with them rested a phial which he was carrying on a short column, whereupon it somehow fell to the ground, making a loud sound, but breaking not. This the Barians took as a sign that they should not delay—indeed, the spot to which it fell would turn out to be the place where the body they sought was buried.
Now, an impetuous member of the Apulian party, a young man eager to see the mission through, began to threaten the captives, unsheathing his blade and promising to let it fall on them unless they revealed the whereabouts of the body. It was the eldest of the custodians who, with a hushed, calm voice, bid the boy retire his weapon, for he need only observe where the holy myrrh flowed miraculously, as this indicated the true grave of the saint. However, added the old man, many had tried this thing, including powerful magnates, and all had failed. If the present theft were successful, it would be because St. Nicholas consented to it. Indeed, he went on, there was reason to suppose things might go well for the men of Bari: one year prior, three residents of Myra had received a vision in which they were led to understand that the saint would leave the city for a new home. There was, then, no cause for further enmity—so soften your threats and rid yourselves of these baneful expressions, he admonished.
The young man, whose name was Matthew, agreed, putting away his sword, and henceforth was of good cheer. Indeed, the vision of which the guardian spoke lifted the hearts of all the forty-seven—surely their intentions were of a piece with the will of the saint! Matthew now began digging in the spot which had been indicated, with the others quickly joining, until they discovered a marble coffin. There was some argument concerning how best to unseal it, but the ever forward-lunging Matthew grabbed a hammer to smash the sepulchral shell before anyone could stop him. The inside was full of holy liquor, supernaturally produced by the body of the confessor, and the young man plunged his hands therein.
There rose a perfumed scent such as to make the men believe they might be standing in paradise. Neither were their comrades deprived, for the fragrance was transported by wind through the windows of the basilica, drifting three miles hence unto them who had stayed behind to guard the ships. When one of the two priests who was present went to pick up the relics from the grave, the holy oil therein enveloped him, which all agreed was a sign of the saint’s will that the affair be brought to its conclusion. This priest, whose name was Father Grimoald, put the relics in silk, and the group readied itself to leave, except that one among them bid them pause, suggesting that they also take the icon of Nicholas, which was known for granting miracles. This, however, they found was somehow forbidden to them, for the saint did not want his old home empty of his presence.
After receiving the odor of paradise, the guards of the three ships now received hymns of celebration sung by their companions as they returned triumphant. Together, they shed tears of gratitude, knowing themselves unworthy of the boon they were making off with. Joined by the forty-seven, the crew now departing totaled sixty-four, eight groups of eight, and like the eight reindeer pulling his sleigh, they set sail with Santa Claus among them.
Meanwhile, the custodians, now free, alerted the city of what had happened, and a sorrowful crowd quickly gathered at the port, seeing off the deliverers of misfortune—as they saw it. For 775 years that body had been among them, and now it would be in some foreign land. Sorrow spurred on anger, and they attacked one of the almsmen of the church, accusing him of allowing this to happen in return for a bribe, but he was supernaturally freed from their wrath, and all who saw were dumbfounded, agreeing that this man was innocent, and that the saint had intervened to show as much. The Myrian moans continued to reach the crew at sea, even two miles from the coast, and the Barians joined the weeping, feeling great sympathy for the people.
They stopped at many places on their way back home, including Patara, birthplace of St. Nicholas. Before reaching it, however, a great and powerful tempest opposed them. Such was its strength that the men considered whether they might not have acted impiously after all—perhaps the storm would not allow them to deliver their bounty, and they should instead turn back and return it. Then it was suggested that one among them might be responsible for the contrary weather, having taken a relic for himself. The Gospels on one of the chapels of the three ships were brought out onto the deck and all the crew was made to swear it had not pilfered any part of the saint. In this way, it came to pass that five men admitted to their wrongdoing. They returned the stolen portions they had taken, and it was henceforth concluded that the saint did not wish to have his relics divided. After this, at one of their resting stops, one member of the crew fell asleep, and dreamt that the saint came to him and promised the whole crew would arrive safely at Bari.
St. Nicholas of Bari Banishing the Storm (1433–1435), a 29 x W 59 cm tempera & gilding on panel by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373–1452).
PHOTO: THE ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM OF ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY, OXFORD.
Another sign of good fortune arrived when a bird came to rest on the starboard of the ship which carried the body. It settled on a hand of the officer on deck, and then went to the crate where the relics were stored, kissing it with its beak and singing so beautifully that the crew remarked how even animals recognize saints and know to give due praise.
Finally, their arrival impending, the sailors built a proper casket for their holy cargo at the port of St. George the martyr, four miles from Bari, soon entering the fortunate city:
O Bari with all thy residents, at one with the angelic Jerusalem, exultingly rejoice in thy infinite favors! Rejoice Bari without restraint, full of delight!
So writes the sage Nicephorus, who provides us with a full account of the events. This image of the particular human community uniting with its heavenly archetype has powerful eschatological resonance, as does the theme of triumphant arrival, an arrival not merely to be awaited, but bravely laid claim to:
For ‘Nicholas’ in Greek means ‘Victory of the People’ in Latin. He truly was Victor when he acquired the Barians and Apulians as protector, freeing them from the grip of infirmities … therefore we must liberate ourselves from … whatsoever beclouds our faith.
Once the ships arrived home, and the people of Bari were assembled, the sailors pledged to build a church for the relics, so that their new patron might be properly honored. They asked the Barians for permission to carry this out, but while most favored the proposal, others dissented, arguing that the body should be taken to the Episcopal See.
During the disputes, the body was entrusted to the Abbot of the local Benedictine monastery, Elias. Meanwhile, the archbishop of Bari, Lord Urso, languished in deciding how to resolve the issue until some suspected him of plotting to take the body away. There was violence, leading to the death of two adolescents, one from either party, until, finally, the original pledge the sailors had made was honored, and a new building was erected in the place of several older ones, honoring the saints to which those had been consecrated together with St. Nicholas.
Now, with the holy body settled, people flocked to the new church. On that first Sunday night and the Monday after, it is recorded that forty-seven people, mirroring the forty-seven thieves, were healed by the presence of St. Nicholas. Injured, diseased, deaf, dumb, blind, insane, and demonized—all were restored.
Invalids possessed of all kinds of illnesses, who had flocked from all parts of the city, were restored to health when in deep devotion they rested beside the body…
The Crippled and Sick Cured at the Tomb of Saint Nicholas (1425), a 35.5 x 35.5 cm tempera on panel by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Nicephoros continues with respect to a woman among these:
I earnestly queried her when she was healed concerning what she had seen. She said that a great hawk had flown over her, and had landed on her breast and spread his wings to cover her. As he left, suddenly an odor followed, so sweet that she thought she was in the garden of paradise. Some others who were cured said the same thing. In this regard, undoubtedly it is to be believed that it was the angel of that holy confessor, who guards over the holy body day after day.
Dwelling in realms celestial, in the high spheres of majesty, he nonetheless retains possession of his earthly body. To this day, when Bari, “at one with the heavenly Jerusalem,” celebrates her patron, the myrrh of his saintly body is collected and mixed with water before being distributed to the people. From empyrean fire, he manifests the nectar of paradise, sending forth the liquor of holiness through his terrestrial presence. A patron to seafarers, who in life is said to have rescued storm-swept sailors and who, in death, was borne by them, provides an anchor to remind the faithful that the ship of grace has not passed them by.
San Nicola salva la nave (St. Nicholas saves the ship) (1447-1448), a 34 x 60 cm altarpiece by Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455), located in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.
But who is this man, whose body the sailors of Bari risked so much to bring home with them, knowing it would soon come under Ottoman custody otherwise?
Today, thanks to the efforts of the Benedictine Dr. Gerardo Cioffari, there is good evidence about the life of the historical St. Nicholas of Myra. His vocation, it is said, was clearly marked out by signs. Jesus and Mary, with Bible and Omophorion, appeared, along with Nicholas, to the clergyman in charge of selecting a bishop for Myra, and who later recognized the saint from his vision. The same occurred to Emperor Constantine, who liberated Nicholas from jail, where he had been placed after a violent outburst against the heretical Arius during the council of Nicaea.
The good works he performed are myriad. When he was young, he inherited much wealth from his parents, even as a man living near him lost all of his. Their father being destitute and unable to pay their dowries, it was rumored this man’s three daughters would have to be sold as slaves, or go into prostitution. The young Nicholas, therefore, visited the home of the desperate family, and dropped a bag of coins through a window—which some say landed in a shoe or sock, wherefrom the Christmas tradition of leaving gifts in stockings. The next morning, the family rejoiced, and seeing that they spent the money well, Nicholas returned again the next night, and the one after that, leaving two more bags, so that all three sisters could marry. On the third night, however, and despite his desire to remain anonymous, the father, who had stayed up to catch his unknown patron in the act, found out who it was, whereafter he spread the tale.
Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries (1433–1435), a 30.5 x 56.5 cm tempera and gold on wood panel by Bicci di Lorenzo, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
Simon the Metaphrast recounts how, after becoming bishop of Myra, Nicholas discovered a demonic stronghold in his realm. Perhaps some villagers complained to the saint that there was a trail leading through the woods all were forced to avoid, for terrible voices were heard coming from one of its cypresses. It seems blood sacrifices had been carried out there in earlier times, so that the tree—which is to say, the forces haunting it—had grown hungry and were now angry that the Christian population of the area refused any longer to feed them.
St. Nicholas went to this place and, brandishing an axe, exorcised the frightened demons that possessed the cypress. Thereafter, free of unclean spirits and severed from its old, blood-stained roots, that evergreen served as an image of the tree of eternal life and of the cross. Here, then, is the first Christmas tree. Soon after, Nicholas also exorcised a nearby well, so that both the trees that grow above, and the water that pools below, were now pure.
St. Nicholas in the act of cutting down a tree worshiped by heathens, oil on board by Leonardo Corona (1561-1605).
So much for gifts in stockings and Christmas trees, but there are plenty more neglected traditions. We have, for example, the account of three generals sent to put down a revolt in Phrygia. On their way, they stopped at Myra to avoid strong winds, where they met Nicholas. Their soldiers took the occasion to buy supplies in the city, whereupon a group of criminals likewise seized on the opportunity, impersonating foreign soldiers in order to loot with impunity before fleeing. Three innocent members of the military company were arrested for the robberies. Despite evidence that these were not the perpetrators, the Prefect of the area, Eustathios, accepted bribes from the guilty parties in return for going ahead with the executions. St. Nicholas, however, knowing of the intrigue, took the generals with him at the hour when their men were to be put to death, and brought the affair to a halt, grabbing the executioner’s sword and accusing the Prefect, who confessed. The holy bishop pardoned him after the three innocents had been likewise pardoned.
After this, the generals, whose names were Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis, pressed forward on their mission, successfully ending the Phrygian revolt, whereupon they were honored by Emperor Constantine himself. This however, made their commander jealous, so he bribed a Prefect by the name of Ablabius to tell the emperor that the three had plotted against him. Causing them to be imprisoned and sentenced to death, facing the lashes of greed and corruption, like their men before them. But remembering how Nicholas of Myra had been able to turn the tide of injustice, they prayed that he might intercede for them. Soon after, St. Nicholas appeared to Constantine in a dream. The emperor had the men brought to him to explain the phenomenon and they assured him they knew no magic, but that this was an honest and holy man who had visited him. Nicholas likewise manifested to Ablabius and had him declare the generals innocent. Constantine sent them home with great wealth, which they gave away to the poor, along with a golden gospel and candelabra. They hurriedly went to thank the saint, who told them to thank God instead.
Nicholas, then, tends to intercede for people in threes. Indeed, a later story, not part of the original accounts, tells of how an evil butcher, looking for tender meat to sell, made off with three infants and dismembered them, but Nicholas, learning of this horror, retrieved the pieces and, putting them together, resurrected the children.
Turning to our era, if the image of Santa Claus has long been trivialized, it has traditionally been so in a way that is consistent with its wholesome appeal to innocence. We may more rightly complain that it has been used as a prop for consumerism. Today, the dark arts of advertisement, which have colonized the sphere of folklore, are depicting the venerable figure as a champion for the toppling of old norms and the erection of new systems of control, with gay and double-vaccinated Santa Clauses—the latter passing through airport customs, reindeer presumably posing too great a carbon footprint compared to commercial flights—ushering in the season.
Perhaps it is time to steal him away again, like the sailors of Bari, who spared the body from falling into the hands of fast-advancing Ottoman invaders. Perhaps his image should again be retrieved and kept among them who will do it honor. There is much to draw on. If the tree and gift-giving are familiar, what of his work against a sex market built on economic desperation, his defense of the innocent, his thwarting those who would brutalize children? And is it not precisely this defense of innocence that explains his role in the celebration of the birth of Christ?
We might lay hold of an expanded canon of Santa Claus traditions: The three sisters, three sentenced soldiers, three centurions, and, centuries later, three ships. Three women, all dressed in wedding gowns, each holding a bag weighed down by gold. Three figures rejoicing with arms overhead showing off the broken chains at their wrists. Three righteous generals, all clad in armor, each holding an unsheathed sword and standing at the ready. Three ships, a bird upon the bow of the one at the center. A crew of eight groups of eight, like reindeer pulling a sleigh.
And we have the forty-seven righteous sailor-thieves of Bari, a young man among them, Matthew the hammer-wielder, manna upon his hands, and those forty-seven who were healed on the first night and day after St. Nicholas entered his new church, an angelic hawk overspreading them.
These are not immediately colonizable by merely secular and, now paroxysmic ‘woke’ attempts at resembling Santa Claus. Just as folk traditions and pagan elements have been integrated, and just as poems and literature have, even recently, greatly enriched the season, from Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, there might now be space to again reinvent, to draw on the past and conquer the future, to dig the tree’s roots deeper into pure waters, and grow its branches that they might reach farther.
“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,” an illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith in A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, published in 1912 by Houghton Mifflin, Boston.