Jerpoint Abbey in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny was once a major town in Ireland. But how exactly did the remains of St Nicholas, a forerunner to Santa Claus & a 4th century nobleman from Patara in Turkey, come to rest in southeast Ireland?
St Nicholas was born in the 4th century. He was patron saint of merchants, sailors, prisoners and children. Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Today he is venerated in both the Orthodox and Catholic church.
Born into a wealthy family in Asia Minor in Patara, in the modern-day Turkey. He was later consecrated bishop of the coastal town of Myra in the territory of Lycia. He is closely associated with Russia, Greece, Holland, Austria, France, Italy, Belgium, Aberdeen and New York and Turkey.
He was buried locally and remained undisturbed until 1087 when returning crusading knights removed his bones and brought them to Bari in southern Italian to prevent them falling into the hands of the advancing Saracen armies. Apparently after landing in Italy two Irish knights took his remains back to Ireland. They buried the remains in St. Nicholas’s church in Newtown Jerpoint, where it’s said they now remain.
The grave slab features St. Nicholas with the heads of two knights said to be the heads of the two crusader knights who brought his remains to Ireland. This could very well be the case as the Normans in Kilkenny were keen collectors of religious relics and it is known that Norman knights participated in the Holy Land Crusades.
Another version of the story tells of a French family, the de Frainets, who removed Nicholas’ remains from Myra to Bari, Italy, in 1169 when Bari was under the Normans. The de Frainets were crusaders to the Holy Land and also owned land in Thomastown, Ireland. After the Normans were forced out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France, taking the relics with them. When the Normans lost power in France, Nicholas de Frainet moved to Ireland. This story has the relics being buried in Jerpoint in 1200.
He is often depicted with three bags or balls symbolising three bags of gold. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. The story went told that there was once a poor man who had three daughters – his daughters were at risk of being sold as slaves without the money to pay their dowry. The stories differ from St. Nicholas dropping three bags of gold down the chimney to throwing the gold through the window where it landed in a stocking hung up beside the fire to dry. Either way St. Nicholas paid a dowry so that the daughters didn’t have to be sold. From then on, when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.
Another mysticism exists about St. Nicholas. A clear liquid exuded from his body after he was buried in Bari, named ‘Manna of Saint Nicholas’. Many pilgrims have drank a diluted solution of this as they believe it to have healing powers. Officially, St Nicholas’s remains are believed to still be in Bari, and have become the subject of a diplomatic dispute as the Turkish government are seeking the return of his remains.
St. Nicholas has many modern namesakes such as Pere Noel, Papai Noel, Viejo Pascuero, Dun Che Lao Ren, Kerstman, Joulupukki, Pere Noel, Weihnachtsmann, Kanakaloka, Mikulas, Babbo Natale, Hoteiosho, Julenissen, Swiety Mikolaj, Ded Moroz, Jultomten.
In some countries including parts of Austria and Germany, present giver became the ‘Christkind’ (Kris Kringle in the USA). Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle and St Nicholas became ‘Sinterklaas’ which translates to the ‘Santa Clause’ that we are familiar with today. His costume and style also varies depending on location.
St. Nicholas died in 343AD. Many Christian churches and many countries observe December 6th as his feast day with great celebrations, processions, services and gift giving.