‘Tis the season of St Nicholas, whose saint’s day is celebrated on December 6th but whose red-robed alter ego will be with us, trading tat and childhood wonder out of countless ply and tinsel grottoes, until Christmas Eve.
In fact, the third-century Bishop of Myra has been attracting interest since Turkish archaeologists announced in October that they had found what they took to be the bishop saint’s undefiled grave beneath the mosaic floor of his basilica in Demre, as his hometown of Myra is now known. Nicholas was back in the news with the further development that a piece of pelvic bone, said to have passed from the saint’s Myra tomb to a church in Illinois via Italy and France, had been carbon dated to around 340AD, when the saint is supposed to have died.
These announcements caused plenty of stir in the press, not least because the discovery of the tomb was the work of experienced archaeologists while the analysis of the pelvic bone was conducted by an august institution called the Oxford Relics Cluster based at Keble College.
But while each story initially intrigued, they also flatly contradicted each other; for how could the saint’s bones be in circulation – and tradition has relic bits of St Nicholas not just in Illinois but New York, St Petersburg, Venice, Antalya and especially in Bari, Puglia – if it were indeed the case that his remains lay intact and until now undisturbed beneath a Demre mosaic floor? In the established narrative, at least in parts historically attested, the saint’s tomb at Myra/Demre has always been above ground and accessible – his sarcophagus a locus of devotion and ritual for almost 1700 years. Accessibility to the saint’s remains is crucial in specific ways, not least in the central belief, which persists even today in places like Bari, that St Nicholas is a myroblyte, which is to say that his encased bones exude a miraculous balm or ‘myrrh’ which the Myra faithful were said to be in the habit of collecting from his sarcophagus via a specially adapted leak hole – and which the Demre guides like to point out even today. What further contradicts the subterranean tomb claims are historical accounts which assert that Norman freebooters lifted his relics from Myra in 1087 and carted them off to Bari, to the cathedral built in the saint’s honour, where his relic remains are said to rest.
As to the pelvic bone, I merely cite calculations that the sheer volume of splinters said to have come from the Holy Cross would amount not merely to a cross but a small forest; the medieval trade in relics must appear to us as a preposterous scam, its practitioners prepared to stoop to eye-popping levels of charlatanry in assigning false provenance to personal possessions, body parts, funeral shrouds, nails, sponges, crowns of thorns and anything else that the gullible might swallow. .
I mention all this because it seems to me that a trick has been missed here; for the resting place of the real Santa Claus – the name is an Americanised corruption of the Dutch Sint Heer Klass, or Lord St Nicholas – lies in plain sight some twenty miles east of Myra at a little-visited classical site called Rhodiapolis.
To appreciate the significance of Rhodiapolis, an otherwise unremarkable place, it is necessary to appreciate that of all the deeds attributed to St Nicholas, and there are many, the one which underpins his modern and secular manifestation is to be found in a story called ‘Three Daughters’. This story, a staple of medieval devotional iconography, endlessly the subject of painted triptychs like the Fra Angelico one below, of church carvings and windows and the rest, tells of how the saint came to the aid of a local citizen who proposed to prostitute his three daughters to relieve the family’s impoverishment. So the saint delivers to the house three bags of gold, the dowries by which the girls’ honours are saved; and in doing so – bearing gifts, in secret and at night – he embarks on his own long posthumous journey to Santa Claus.
The question is whether this charitable deed can factually be attributed to St Nicholas. Very little is known about the saint’s actual life, and the sheer volume of stories associated with him persuades that our saint is in fact a composite – of the virtues, actions and examples in fact performed by others and which proved influential and exemplary, and so gained traction, in the early-medieval Christian world.
Which is what brings us to Rhodiapolis, the home town and burial place of a wealthy benefactor by the name of Opramoas who lived perhaps a century before St Nicholas. I made a recent visit to Rhodiapolis – the site stands above the poly-tunnel town of Kumluca – to discover that Opramoas’ much admired tomb is currently being restored and off-limits. I’ll have to return if I am to view for myself the long inscriptions which detail Opramoas’ extensive good works; these include funding civic buildings and festivals, paying for schooling of the children at Xanthus, the regional capital, and funding burials for the indigent.
The inscription also mentions that Opramoas was renowned for paying the dowries of poor families’ daughters.
What we are looking at, then, is a classic case of false attribution; it’s time, it seems to me, that we credit Opramoas and not St Nicholas with the exemplary deed that would lead, finally, to Santa Claus. For of all the stories credited to St Nicholas ‘Three Daughters’ was to prove the most resonant if also the most amenably adaptable to the commercial expediencies of our venal age; the story which gives us the man who bears gifts, secretly and at night – but who gets the parents to foot the bill.
So I was pleased to visit the home town of Opramoas though I’ll have to return to view the tomb of the man who reminds us what giving should really be about at this time of year.
My book on the posthumous life of St Nicholas – Santa: A Life in the UK edition, Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus – is out of print but available second-hand through Amazon or as an e-book by visiting https://www.ebooks.com/2082884/santa/seal-jeremy/