We are not here to debate whether or not Santa Claus is real this holiday season. However, what is real is the man Santa Claus is based on. Santa is based on a Greek bishop born in the 4th century CE, who gave his own wealth to the poor. By the nineteenth century, the story of Saint Nicholas was repurposed to fit the story of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas is celebrated in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian faith, and as such, people can visit his relics.
Here we take a look at some of the places we can see Saint Nicholas’s bones during the holiday season.
The relics of Saint Nicholas
After his death, Saint Nicholas was worshiped throughout medieval Europe. He became the patron saint of Russia and Greece and of sailors and merchants and was embraced by the Italian naval empire. Saint Nicholas’s remains were originally placed in Myra, located in modern-day Turkey. However, when The Ottoman Empire conquered Myra in the 11th century, Italian soldiers took it upon themselves to move Saint Nicholas’s relics.
In Bari, Italy, a new basilica was built to house Saint Nicholas’s bones, called the Basilica di San Nichola. Today, most of Saint Nicholas’s bones remain at this basilica, where they have been kept in a gold tomb since 1087.
The strictly religious definition of a relic is the mortal remains of a saint. In medieval Europe, the relic industry was huge as having a Saint’s relic at your church would attract pilgrimages to your town. As a result, churches worldwide continue to claim that they have relic fragments from Saint Nicholas’s bones.
1. Basilica Di San Nicola in Bari, Italy
As previously mentioned, the Basilica di San Nicolais is the most famous destination for pilgrims trying to pay homage to Saint Nicholas. Most of Saint Nicholas’s bones are housed at this Basilica, sealed in a gold-tomb in the crypt. Supposedly, the remains at the Basilica Di San Nicola exude a sweet-smelling, myrrh-like substance. This substance has been extracted from Saint Nicholas’s remains each year, and it is believed to have healing powers.
2. Chiesa Di San NicolÃ³ al Lido, in Venice, Italy
After the Ottoman Empire conquered Myra in the 11th century, the town of Venice also sent a search party to collect Saint Nicholas’s bones. These Venice sailors took over 500 smaller bone fragments with them back to Venice, where they are now interned in Chiesa di San NicolÃ³. However, the relics located in Venice are little-known and not a place of pilgrimage in comparison to Bari.
3. Halberstadt Cathedral, Halberstadt, Germany
The Halberstadt Cathedral in Halberstadt, Germany, contains the finger of Saint Nicholas. In the 13th century, the Halberstadt bishop Konrad von Krosigk brought the relic back with him from the Fourth Crusade. The mummified finger is visible behind rock crystal, while the design of the arm reliquary is a gold-plated metal sleeve in the shape of an open hand. Precious stones adorn the edge of the sleeve. The relic is currently on display at the Halberstadt Cathedral.
4. Worms Cathedral, in Worms, Germany
In 1058, a small chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas was built onto the worms cathedral to hold a Saint Nicholas relic given to the Cathedral by Empress Theophanu from Byzantium around 980. The original relic stored at the Cathedral was lost during the Nine Years War. In 1986, the Bishop of Bari gave the Worms Cathedral a bottle of myrrh-like substance from the bones of Saint Nicholas, and four years later, in 1990, a new shrine was dedicated to Saint Nicholas at the Worms Cathedral.
5. The Basilica of Saint Nicholas, in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Recently, the Basilica of Saint Nicholas in Amsterdam has received its very own Saint Nicholas relic. On December 5, 2021, the Basilica received a relic that is supposedly a piece of rib from Saint Nicholas. The relic was presented to the Basilica by Egmond Abbey in North Holland, who was in possession of this relic for about a thousand years.
6. Shrine of All Saints at Saint Martha of Bethany Church, in Illinois, United States
The Shrine of All Saints located in Morton Grove, Illinois contains the relics of more than 2000 saints, making it the second-largest collection of relics in the United States. The shrine is said to contain a fragment of Saint Nicholas’s pelvic bone. In 2017, the bone fragment was analyzed and it was discovered that it does in fact date back to Saint Nicholas’s lifetime. This relic is believed to have come from Lyon in France.