The remains of St Nicholas are said to be in the grounds of a ruined church in Co Kilkenny thanks to some medieval adventurers, writes PhD scholar Helen Doyle, Department of History
The tradition of Santa Claus dates only back to the late 18th century, and it was not until the mid-20th century that he emerged as the jolly old man in a red suit. The name Santa Claus evolved from Sinterklaas the Dutch nickname for St. Nicholas. Santa Claus originated from the saintly Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who performed deeds of great kindness and many miracles during his lifetime.
While these facts are fairly well known, what is not common knowledge is that Santa Claus has a very close link with Ireland, particularly with Co Kilkenny. It is said that here, amid the ruins of St Nicholas's Church in the lost medieval town of Newtown Jerpoint, lies the grave of Santa Claus.
While this may be Santa Claus' final resting place, it is not where his life began or ended. Santa Claus, or St Nicholas was born into a very wealthy family, around 280 AD in Patara, near Myra in modern-day Turkey. Unfortunately, he lost his parents at a young age and was raised by his uncle, a bishop. His saintliness was evident even at that time as he distributed his inheritance among the poor and needy. During his lifetime, he was venerated for his extraordinary kindness and generosity, was ordained a priest, and eventually consecrated Bishop of Lycia (Turkey).
One of the most popular stories of St Nicholas' generosity involves saving the daughters of a merchant from destitution by throwing bags of gold down their chimney for dowries. It is believed that the hanging of stockings at the fireside originated in this story. On his death, on December 6th 343 at the age of 73, St Nicholas was canonised, and his feast day has since been celebrated on that day. He is the protector of children, sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers and students.
It is believed that St Nicholas was buried in the local church at Myra and there he lay until 1087 when Italian sailors seized half of his skeleton and brought it to Bari, where those remains are said to be today in two churches, one Catholic and one Orthodox Christian. Venetian sailors later claimed the remaining fragments of the skeleton bringing them to Venice, where the Church of St Nicholas was built.
But while this story may be based in fact (and indeed widely believed), it does not consider the circumstances that led to Santa Claus finding his final resting place in Kilkenny. The story goes that two towns, Newtown Jerpoint and Thomastown, sprung up in the early 13th century close to Jerpoint Abbey. Both towns thrived initially, but the re-routing of the local road and loss of the toll bridge in the 17th century saw the residents of Newtown Jerpoint abandon the town and move elsewhere.
So how did St Nicholas, or Santa Claus arrive there? Although there is no definite answer to this question it is thought that his remains were brought to Kilkenny by a French Norman family living in the locality at that time. This family, the de Frainets, had lands near Thomastown, and in France. When the Saracen Muslim revolt began in 1087, these Norman overlords were ordered to go on Crusades to the Holy Land to fight. Overcome and defeated in battle they were forced to retreat, but brought many sacred Christian religious relics with them.
Among these relics was the body of St Nicholas. It was exhumed as they passed through Myra in Turkey and brought to southern Italy, where they remained in a church in Bari until the Normans were forced out of Italy by the Genoese.
St Nicholas's remains were taken to Fraxinet, a Moorish town near Nice, where they were entrusted to the French branch of the de Frainet family. Nicholas de Frainet, who lived in Ireland, feared that the Normans’ days in southern France were numbered and brought the remains to Kilkenny, where the church of St Nicholas was built at Newtown Jerpoint.
Today, in the ruins of this church, you'll find the memorial slab marking the location of St Nicholas’ grave. This memorial depicts an effigy of a cleric, overlooked by two stone heads, locally believed to be St Nicholas and the two crusaders who brought the remains to Kilkenny. This is how Santa Claus arrived in Kilkenny, and where he remains to the present day.
Of course, we do all realise that on Christmas Eve, as the crackling fire turns to ashes and embers, and the house settles to stillness, the plate of cookies, the carrot and glass of milk await one very special visitor. As little children dream of what Christmas morning will bring, they may half waken to the sound of jingle bells on the snow covered rooftop.
As they drift back into their dream filled sleep, there will be no doubt in their minds that who they heard was jolly old St Nick and his reindeers. We do all know Santa Claus is alive and well and that he will live on as long as there are those that believe in the magic of Christmas, and that this story is, of course, nothing more than just another winter's tale.
This is an edited extract of the author’s piece as published in Christmas & The Irish: A Miscellany (Wordwell) edited by Salvador Ryan
This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm
Main photo credit: A.-K. D., CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons