Sunday, December 20, 2009
Just about now, the Santa Claus loved by children everywhere is busy wrapping up presents at his home in the North Pole. But if some historians are correct, the figure who inspired everyone's favorite portly gift-giver lies buried in a moss-covered Irish graveyard.
At issue isn't the white-bearded reindeer fan, but St. Nicholas of Myra, the philanthropic fourth-century Bishop of Lycia, now part of modern-day Turkey. According to Philip Lynch, chairman of a historical society in the Irish town of Callan, the original St. Nick's remains are interred under the ruins of Jerpoint Abbey in County Kilkenny. "It is an amazing story and yet very few people know about [his] connection to this country," Lynch told the Daily Mirror newspaper. "Every year now we get visitors to the site, but still not that many."
Like his more famous successor, the true St. Nicholas was renowned for his generosity. Born into a wealthy merchant family in the Mediterranean city of Myra, he dedicated his life to serving God and following Jesus' instruction to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor." He left anonymous gifts for the sick and destitute – bags of gold were a favorite – and later earned a reputation as a miracle worker with the ability to resurrect murdered children. Following his death in A.D. 346, his tomb at Myra cathedral became a site of pilgrimage for early Christians, who believed it possessed mystical healing powers.
So how did a Turkish saint end up on the Emerald Isle? It's long been known that St. Nick didn't stay in his initial tomb for long. In the 11th century, the city of Myra – part of the Byzantine Empire – was besieged by Seljuk Turks. Worried that they might lose the saint to the invading Muslims, a crew of enterprising Italian sailors snatched his remains and spirited them across the Mediterranean to their home port of Bari. Today, Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians flock to that city on the Adriatic to pray at the grand Basilica di San Nicola, where his relics are rumored to be kept.
However, Irish historian Lynch tells a different tale. He claims that the rescue of old St. Nicholas was actually carried out by a family of French crusaders, who were known to be major collectors of relics. "The de Frainets, who are now known as the Freaneys, had land near Thomastown in Kilkenny," said Lynch, referring to a county in the south of Ireland. "They also had lands in France. They went on the Crusades to the Holy Land to take on the Saracens." Lynch said the crusaders grabbed the bones as they were retreating from a Saracen army and took them to Bari in southern Italy, which was then part of the French Norman empire.
As Lynch tells it, the odyssey of the holy remains wasn't over yet. After the Normans were forced out of Bari by the Genoese, the de Frainets shifted the relics to their home in Nice. But soon the balance of power turned against the Normans in France as well, so the family packed up St. Nick's bones and headed to Ireland. Lynch said his remains were finally buried at Kilkenny's Jerpoint Abbey in 1200. The abbey now lies in ruins, but Lynch said one impressive tomb still stands out: a slab of rock into which the image of a bishop and two other heads have been chiseled. The heads are believed to be the two Crusaders who brought Nicholas to Ireland. And the bishop, surrounded by three gold bags, is St. Nicholas.
Of course the story could all be blarney. But there is another bizarre connection between this region of Ireland and Mr. Claus. Coca-Cola, the company that popularized the red-suited, black-booted modern Santa, was founded by the American entrepreneur Asa Candler. His family originally hailed from Jerpoint in County Kilkenny.