Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Nicholas, bishop of Myra and a saint in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, was born in the third century and died in the fourth. There, I said it. That he ever lived at all was questioned by some historians in the twentieth century. In due time, scholarly skepticism about St. Nicholas as a historical figure gave birth to the popular belief that he had been proven fictional, like Santa Claus. Against that background, the Catholic Church in 1969 demoted Nicholas’s feast day, December 6, from universal to optional, leading casual observers to conclude that the Church had come around to doubting his existence, though if she had she would have removed him from the Roman calendar entirely. Meanwhile, among Orthodox Christians, the good saint’s high standing was never much affected by the twentieth-century zeitgeist.

Since then, the scholarly consensus appears to have swung gently in the opposite direction, toward the opinion that Nicholas was flesh and blood after all, though the bien-pensants may be finding it hard to break their sentimental attachment to the notion that he’s a social construct. Discovery that Santa is only make-believe has become for Westerners a rite of passage from toddlerhood to “the age of reason,” as it’s called in the Catholic Church—seven years, roughly. So everyone who prides himself on being a big boy, tough-minded and all grown up, is psychologically predisposed to credit those rumors about the difficulties surrounding the historicity of the man behind the legend that is Santa. Here, we felt, in the debunking of Nicholas, was an opportunity to relive our youth, to go from disenchantment to disenchantment.

Not so fast, counsels Gerardo Cioffari, O.P. Skepticism of skepticism, of the assumption that because a thing is beautiful it must not be true, has for many decades guided Fr. Cioffari in his tireless work as the world’s foremost Nicholas expert and most persuasive advocate for the reasonableness of the proposition that the literary and archaeological evidence for the saint’s remarkable life isn’t necessarily all mythological. If the information that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, survives into the third millennium, will skeptics of that age assume that the coincidence must be legendary, not historical, and that whatever truth can be gleaned from it must be poetic, not factual?

Consider Nicholas’s remains. Churches all over the place claim to have a piece of him—a bone here, a tooth there. The traditional site of his remains, or at least most of them, including his skull, has been Bari, Italy, since 1087, when his bones were translated there from his tomb in Myra in Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey. According to Venetian tradition, however, sailors embarking from the western Adriatic coast for the First Crusade in 1099 found their way to Myra and there stole or, shall we say, forcibly made off with Nicholas’s bones, which for the past millennium have been venerated at the Church of St. Nicholas on the Lido.

So who has the bones, Bari or Venice? A skeptic might answer that the question is naive: A thousand years after a sea voyage of two thousand miles, we have two cities pointing to two boxes of bones all smashed up. No one could seriously hope to make any sense of those handfuls of dust.

The inevitable and longstanding dispute between Bari and Venice was actually decided twenty years ago, by Luigi Martino, an anatomy professor at the University of Bari. He had examined the bones in Bari in 1952 and 1957 and offered, inter alia, that they were of a man in his seventies, which was consistent with most of the literary evidence for Nicholas’s age at death. In 1992, Martino had occasion to compare the Venetian bones with the Barian bones and concluded that they were from the same skeleton and that the two sets of remains were complementary. Evidently the sailors who scooped up most of Nicholas’s bones and took them to Bari in 1087 left behind a portion that the Myrans preserved for a decade or so until the Venetians made off with what was left.

In 2004, Francesco Introna, professor of forensic pathology at the University of Bari, collaborated with Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist at the University of Manchester in England to construct a model of Nicholas’s head. They gave him, a man of the Mediterranean, olive skin and the white and thinning hair of a man in his seventies. His nose is broken, perhaps from a brawl that ensued after he punched out Arius at the Council of Nicaea (which he did, according to some sources), or perhaps from persecution under the reign of Diocletian. We don’t know. His features are rough and masculine, suggesting the sort of saint whom sailors might be inclined to adopt as their patron. On the whole his face is broad, almost round, and the impression it makes is that of an extrovert—not cuddly like Santa, to be sure, but capable of frank mirth and a good belly laugh. You can draw your own conclusions.

Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.


Centro Studi Nicolaini (Nicholas Research Center)

St. Nicholas Center, Holland, Michigan

Adam C. English, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra

The Real Face of Santa, Atlantic Productions, for BBC Two

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles