Digging back to the real St. Nicholas
Interview with Adam English
DAVID: We know very little about the original St. Nicholas. You describe him, at one point in your book, as “a vaguely historical personage.”
ADAM: Yes, the record on Nicholas is thin because he left no volumes of his own theology or poetry or sermons. We have nothing written in his own hand. We have nothing written by his immediate contemporaries, either. The earliest historical records that mention his name come from a couple of hundred years after his death. That’s always troubling to a historian who, of course, would rather have first-hand accounts.
ADAM: The lists of those who attended Nicaea are not consistent. The questions historians face is: Why do these lists differ? Did some scribes later add people who they thought should have been at Nicaea? Lists range from 200 to more than 300 people in attendance, so that shows you the wide variety. The earliest lists name only about 200, but those could have been partial lists that were made to show some of the most prominent bishops in attendance. The consensus of scholars now is that there were closer to 300 bishops at Nicaea. In the larger lists, Nicholas’s name appears; he’s not in the shorter lists. That’s where the ambiguity lies. He is not named in all lists, so there is room for doubt.
DAVID: People are familiar, thanks to novelist Dan Brown and others, with the extensive Christian archives at the Vatican—and in other parts of the world, as well. But there is no such thing as an archive of documents from Bishop Nicholas’s reign.
ADAM: No. So far, historians have uncovered nothing from his lifetime. Then again, if you’re evaluating historical figures by the surviving works in their own hand—Jesus didn’t leave any written works, nor did Socrates.
DAVID: Excellent point. Still, I want readers to understand how painstaking you had to be in sifting various layers of the historical record to prepare this new biography. Among the claims you had to sift: Where is Nicholas buried today?
Nicholas’ Bones Traveled the World
ADAM: By and large, Nicholas is buried in Bari, Italy. There are fragments of his bones that have made it to Venice and other places. His bones were moved from Turkey to Italy in 1087 and, a few years later, some Venetian sailors came and took some fragments of the bones. There are finger bones and other relics that have made appearances in churches around the world, claiming to be authentic. But the bones in the tomb in Bari have been analyzed on multiple occasions. Today, he’s mostly in Bari, Italy.
DAVID: In my world travels, I’ve never made it to Bari—but I’m fascinated by the annual collection of liquid from Nicholas’s tomb. They call it myrrh [manna], you point out in your book, even though real myrrh is something different—a resin from a thorny tree. So, what’s the deal with this seeping miracle?
ADAM: This is one of the more fascinating and curious parts of this story that is unknown to most Americans—even people who may know that there was a real historical person named Nicholas. From very early on in the history of Nicholas’s relics—and to this day—his tomb secretes this clear watery liquid. They call it myrrh or oil. If you visit Bari, you can purchase little vials of it. It’s collected once a year in a big celebration. [The Prior] goes in and collects a vial of it, then it’s diluted and mixed with water and oil and they prepare tiny samples of it for pilgrims. It may sound unique and it’s little known [by Protestants] in this country, but Nicholas is not the only one from the Middle Ages whose tomb secretes liquid.
ADAM: Today, Bari is a large modern port city on the eastern side of Italy and cruise ships come in and out. But the old town of Bari where you’ll find the Basilica of St. Nicholas is an enclosed, medieval-style area. The streets are labyrinths. Houses are built on top of houses. The locals will say this was done on purpose so that if a raiding party descended on the town, they would get lost in the maze-like bowels of the city. But there is a plaza that opens up and the basilica is there. It’s an imposing, gray, blocky building and you can go inside. The basilica was built around the year 1100. Nicholas’s body is underneath the main altar in a crypt. You take the side stairs down into this darkly lit chamber. There’s a simple gray tomb. Most of the time, the people who are there are either tourists or Russian pilgrims. Nicholas is still very popular with the Russians. Nothing in the basilica would remind an American visitor of Santa Claus—no sleighs or reindeer or any of the images we associate with Santa Claus.
You can see the tomb through a grate, but you cannot see the bones inside it. One of the fascinating things to watch is that on certain days one of the Dominican fathers who maintains the basilica will go behind the grate and—especially for the Russian pilgrims who are there—they will pass their prayer cloths or Bibles through the grate to the Dominican who will lay it on the tomb for a blessing and then hand it back.
St. Nicholas’ Life, Death and Legacy
DAVID: We’re not entirely sure about the dates of his birth and death, even though his feast day of December 6 is based on the officially regarded date of his death in the year 343. Wikipedia says he was born in 270 and died Dec. 6, 343, but your book says there may be some debate on that chronology among historians.
ADAM: The standardized dates are the ones given in Wikipedia. The death date is very specific in 343, and it now marks the feast—but even that date came from a historical source in the 12th century, hundreds of years after Nicholas lived and died. In terms of his birth date? There are many guesses and we don’t have any concrete historical record to settle the question.
DAVID: One of the historical details you describe in the book is the overall prevalence of the name “Nicholas” in the ancient world. Prior to the 4th century, the name was not well known. After the 4th century, the name was spreading around the world. That’s an indication that something famous happened with a man by that name in the 4th century.
ADAM: It’s a circumstantial piece of evidence. I can’t find records of people named Nicholas before the 4th century, but after that it’s a prevalent name throughout Asia Minor.
St. Nicholas: Sorting Truth from Myths
DAVID: You tell readers that there are many legends that were associated with St. Nicholas in the centuries after he lived and died. But, the one heroic story that probably was based on historical fact was Nicholas helping three poor girls to avoid slavery, or worse.
ADAM: This story of his anonymous gifts to the three maidens really stands out. There are also early references that attach Nicholas as a patron saint of sailors, but I think it’s this story of helping the three maidens that jumps off the page. He learns that these three girls are destitute and on the brink of being sold—then, one by one, he provides bags of gold that become dowries so they can marry, instead. There’s nothing exactly like that story from other saints in that era. At that time, the most popular saint stories involved martyrdom in which the saint would die in some gruesome way. Or, there were stories of rigorous monks who went out in the desert and denied themselves in heroic ways.
But here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls—girls who no one else in that era would have cared about. He is truly taking the biblical command to look out for “the least among you” to heart in a serious way. He does something that is purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that era—and he does it without any hope of reward.
That story lit up people’s imagination. He becomes a gift giver, a patron saint of young maidens, newlyweds and anyone in dire distress. You’re down to your very last crust of bread, but watch the window: Nicholas may yet appear to save you. That story of the three maidens was his ticket to fame.
DAVID: There are other legends I keep encountering each year around St. Nicholas Day. One of them involves three boys who were chopped up by a criminal—and St. Nicholas restores them to life. You say: Probably didn’t happen during the real Nicholas’s life.
ADAM: That story of the boys being chopped up comes from deep in the Middle Ages many hundreds of years after his life. His first biographers knew nothing of this story.
DAVID: But the story about Nicholas and sailors? That goes way back, right?
ADAM: It goes back to the earliest versions of his life we can find. There were numerous stories of Nicholas rescuing sailors or helping out on the high seas. The references come from the 500s, when he already was connected with sailors, especially when they were crying out for help. It’s also why his fame spread through trade routes around the world. In Greece, they sometimes picture Nicholas’s clothes soaked in brine, his beard dripping sea water, and his face covered in sweat precisely because of this association.
St. Nicholas: An Earthy Saint who Still Draws Thousands
DAVID: Beyond our Western Santa Claus, the real St. Nicholas remains hugely popular to this day, as you point out in your book.
ADAM: You only have to look at the tradition involving the Icon of St. Nikolai at Velikoretsky, Russia. The tradition of Nicholas’ pilgrims forming a procession to Velikoretsky goes back a long, long time. It became quiet and fell off in numbers during the Communist era—then, afterward, it was publicly reinstated and gets bigger and bigger each year. The procession in June drew 35,000 pilgrims, but there was nothing I saw in the American media.
DAVID: You’re right. It’s virtually unknown over here. There is information on this pilgrimage of the icon on websites in Russian and other Eastern European languages, but nothing I can find in English on the processions.
ADAM: Nicholas is popular all across Europe. In the United Kingdom alone, there are more than 500 churches that bear the name Nicholas. He’s venerated in Netherlands, Germany, Austria—a very European saint.
His continuing popularity lies in the stories that are told and retold. One of the stories I tell in the book is about Nicholas having drinks with other saints up in heaven. He keeps nodding off. Someone nudges him and says he’s missing out on the party. And he says: I’m sorry but I’m just back from helping more sailors in trouble get back to their port. That’s the kind of story that still is passed around. He’s a saint who is earthy. He’s a laborer. He’s not afraid to get messy to help people.
From Read the Spirit, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity, December 2, 2012. Used by permission.
A careful look at the real historic person, Nicholas of Myra; this accessible account brings together primary source material, modern scholarship, and tradition over the centuries from many places to create a compelling account of Nicholas’ life and why it has been so influential, even today. Fully annotated.
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