The big Italian San Nicola festival commemorates the 1087 arrival of St. Nicholas’ remains in Bari, Italy. When Turks conquered Asia Minor, many Christians were afraid they would no longer be permitted to visit the popular pilgrimage site of Nicholas’ tomb in Myra. So Italian sailors spirited the relics away to Bari where a huge basilica was built in honor of the saint. At the festival every May, Nicola’s statue is taken out to sea for a day. Thousands welcome it back to Bari with a lighted procession winding from the harbor to a public square. The mayor and other dignitaries greet the statue and address the crowds. The week-long celebration includes a solemn high mass in the basilica which is filled to over-flowing with devout worshipers.
On St. Nicholas Eve in December, children in Molfetta, a city on the Adriatic Sea, put a plate on the table with a letter asking for gifts and promising to be good in the coming year. During the night, San Nicola fills most of the requests and piles the plates with chocolates, candies, and other good things. It is a magical night for children; the surprises make a joyous morning for everyone.
San Niccolò comes on December 6th in Trieste. Children and adults celebrate the day; it is the primary day for gift-giving to children. Grandfathers dress up like the saint, giving presents or coal made of sugar if the children have not been good. Trieste had strong trade relationships with Apulia and it is believed that St. Nicholas traditions were brought to the area from Bari.
Because Nicholas is the patron saint of young women wanting to be married, young women still come to the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari on the 6th of December to put a note to the saint with three coins in a special box. In Provenzo Romano, the St. Nicholas Feast includes la Festa delle Zitelle—the feast of unmarried women. Single women between 18 and 34 receive a symbolic gift from the local council along with a wish for them to find a husband. The festival, as others in Lazio, also features fine food including new wine along with pancakes and bruschetta made with the year’s fresh olive oil.
In the village of Palazzo Adriano, Sicily, also, young Byzantine Catholic girls celebrate St. Nicholas’ patronal feast day, celebrated December 5th and 6th, in a similar way. They wear traditional dress and sing special songs to Saint Nicholas that they may find husbands.
In some areas, particularly parts of Sicily, when a child loses a tooth, the tooth is concealed in a safe place such as inside a closet or drawer. After hiding the tooth, the child prays a special prayer to St. Nicholas, “Santu Nicola, Santu Nicola … .” Or else, after being under the pillow overnight, the tooth is thrown out over the rooftops, saying the same special prayer “San Nicola, iu ti dugnu a zappa vecchia, vui mi dati a zappa nova” (Saint Nicholas, I give you my old hoe [tooth] and ask that you give me a new one). Either way, the next day St. Nicholas will have exchanged the tooth for a present, usually money.
In southern Italy and Sicily there are areas that distribute Pani di S. Nicola or Pagnottelle di San Nicola, St. Nicholas loaves. The custom is seemingly borrowed from the tradition of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, though made particular for Nicholas of Myra. In Ganzirri fishermen believe the loaves can calm storms at sea. So fishermen carry the loaves, after being blessed in the church, on their fishing vessels. When severe storms blow, they throw loaves into the sea, firm in their faith they will be protected. St. Nicholas of Myra is sometimes shown with loaves, with or without the book of the Gospels. The loaves recall the miracle of the grain that relieved famine in Myra.
German-speaking areas of Italy, particularly Trentino-Alto Adige, Val Canale in Tarvisio, Ugovizza and Malborghetto in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and some areas of Belluno in Veneto, reflect Germanic influence with Krampus traditions. These frightening creatures parade with loud bells and horns, frightening onlookers. Over 400 Krampus accompany St. Nicholas in Lana, South Tyrol, coming from thirty-four different places, including some from abroad. Awards are given to the best groups. Though brutal looking, they are “good”, delighting children and adults who line the streets. They accompany St. Nicholas who has defeated evil and has some measure of control over the Krampus.
A special St. Nicholas Serata charity event has been held in Rome every year since 2000. Normally the gala evening, sponsored by St. Patrick’s Catholic American Community in Rome, features dinner, dancing and auction to support four charities assisting women abuse survivors, refugees, asylum seekers, and mental health patients. The event provides an invaluable lifeline for these projects. In 2020, because of the pandemic, the event was held online as the 2020 Saint NIcholas Charity Serata-thon over ten days, so the charities could still meet the needs of vulnerable people—the very people St. Nicholas would care about.
Artist in Bari: Anna Maria Di Terlizzi
Mixed media images of San Nicola
“Panuzza” di San Nicola, Mezzojuso, Italy
Special Artos bread baked, blessed, and given for St. Nicholas Feast