Saint Nicholas' Tomb

Saint Nicholas’ Tomb

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Saint Nicholas is the person who has in modern times taken on the form of Santa Claus in North America. The real Saint Nicholas is believed to be buried in Bari, Italy. Tradition traces the story of Santa Claus to Bishop Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century in Asia Minor. He is reputed to have been born in Patara in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and rose through church ranks to became the bishop of Myra, a Mediterranean port in Lycia. He supposedly attended the Council of Nicea that condemned the errors of the heretic Arius, but no one by that name is listed as being among the attendees. He eventually fell victim to the suppression of the church during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305). In this version of Saint Nicholas’s life, he was buried at Myra. In the centuries that followed, his legend grew and his tomb became a pilgrimage site.

Muslim forces overran Lycia in the eleventh century, and in 1087 sailors from Italy stole the bones buried in the tomb at Myra and transported them to Bari in southern Italy. In subsequent years, the saint became so identified with Bari that his Turkish past was somewhat obscured. A crypt to house the saint was erected within a few months of his burial, and no less a personage than the pope came to Bari to place the relics in their new resting place. The crypt soon became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe, and over the next decade a new church was built over the crypt. In the twelfth century, Pope Urban II (r. 1088–1099) laid the relics of Saint Nicholas beneath the crypt’s altar, consecrating a shrine that became one of medieval Europe’s great pilgrimage centers. The main church was built within ten years, but it wasn’t until the middle of the twelfth century that the imposing and majestic Basilica di San Nicola was completed. Its Romanesque architecture served as an inspiration for a number of other church buildings over the next centuries.

Adding to the mystical nature of the shrine were reports of a sweet-smelling, myrrh-like substance, the so-called “manna of Saint Nicholas,” that exuded from his corpse. This substance also had been reported when Saint Nicholas rested in Myra. Believers sought some of the manna to prevent or heal sicknesses. The substance was gathered at an annual ceremony led by the priest in charge of the cathedral, and it was made available to pilgrims in small decorated bottles. In recent years, the manna has been formally retrieved in ceremonies held annually on May 9, the day commemorating the movement of the relics from Myra to Bari. The local priest, accompanied by a delegate of the pope, the archbishop of Bari, an Eastern Orthodox bishop, and other local notables, presides over the ceremony.

In the mid 1950s, because of a renovation of Saint Nicholas’s crypt, the nature of the manna was reconsidered. In 1954 the tomb was reopened and the saint’s bones were placed inside an urn, where they remained for three years. During this time, it was observed that the bones “perspired.” This perspiration, or manna, turned out to be water, which, by means not as yet fully explained, condenses inside the crypt. Believers continue to value the water, since it has been in contact with the bones of the saint.

Today, there is doubt that such a person as Saint Nicholas actually existed, a position that obviously casts doubts upon the identity of the person whose bones are venerated today in Bari. Nevertheless, Saint Nicholas has come to be known as the patron saint of children, as well as of various European countries.


Cioffari, P. Gerardo. Saint Nicholas: His Life, the Translation of His Relics and His Basilica in Bari. Trans. Philip L. Barnes. Bari, Italy: Centro Studi Nicolaiani, 1994.
DeChant, Dell. The Scared Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2002.
Ebon, Martin. Saint Nicholas: Life and Legend. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Jones, Charles W. Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.