St. Nick’s Italian origins

saint nick italy venice bari

Above: San Nicola di Bari as depicted in a panel from the Dowry for Three Virgins by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427).

Saint Nick is not only a popular cultural icon in the United States, he is celebrated and honored in Italy as well on December 6th, the feast of San Nicola.

Born in 270 AD, San Nicola was raised in the former ancient Greek port city of Myra, in modern-day Turkey. His parents were wealthy, but died in an epidemic when he was young. Nicola was raised by his uncle to be a priest, and he eventually became bishop of his city.

In his life, he was known for his generosity, having given his entire inheritance to help the poor. The most popular story of San Nicola is that he helped a destitute man with three young daughters who had no money for a dowry. In those days, lacking a dowry meant that a girl was destined to be sold into slavery, most likely as a prostitute. Hearing his story, Nicola secretly tossed a bag of gold through the man’s window on the three occasions of the daughters’ coming-of-age. These bags are said to have landed in the shoes left by the fire overnight to dry (some say the bags landed in their socks) giving birth to the tradition of hanging stockings for Saint Nick.

He is also the patron saint of sailors (among many other things) and many namesake churches have been erected in port cities all over Europe. Traveling back from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his ship encountered a horrific storm. As the sailors panicked, Nicola quietly prayed and the storm ceased. For this he is associated with protecting the seafaring men of the world.

San Nicola is the patron saint of Bari, where half of his relics are stored in the Basilica di San Nicola. It is said that inhabitants of this city sought to save his remains from the impending Islamic occupation. In 1087, they took the larger bones and left the smaller pieces, which were eventually transferred to a church in Venice.

The Festa di San Nicola marks the beginning of the Italian Christmas holidays and children all over Italy receive a gift from him on December 6th. He gave birth the the Italian icon, Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), and the jolly Santa Claus that we know and love in the United States.

Happy holidays, everyone!

One response

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