Back in the day, the Greek colony of Myra was a prosperous port town in Asia Minor, at the mouth of the Myros River. The town stretched along the river for quite a ways. There were some suburbs further from the sea and the river, but they were unimportant.
Somewhere around Emperor Constantine’s time, it had a bishop named “Nicholas” who was famed for generosity. Sailors made him their patron, and they made pilgrimages to his basilica in the main town, close to the harbor. There were also legends of how St. Nicholas saved young boys and maidens from terrible fates. As time went on, his feast day, December 6, became the focus of some fun things for kids in the midst of that time of pre-Christmas fasting, Advent.
In the early Middle Ages, the port silted up. Then there was a huge river flood which buried the riverside parts of the town in silt and mud. The basilica was dug out again, but most of the town was abandoned. (What remained, in the high rocks around the old harbor, was renamed Andriake.) The people who stuck around moved to the suburbs, which became the rural farming town of Myra. Another shrine church was built for St. Nicholas in the new town, and his bones were moved there.
And then… there was another flood, an earthquake with a river tsunami. The old Myra, including the basilica, was buried twenty feet deep in goo. Farmers eventually made their fields over the roofs of a great ancient city.
It was about this time that the Turks invaded. A bunch of worried sailors from Bari, Italy showed up and stole the more solid bones of St. Nicholas, taking them home to preserve them from the Muslim Turks, but leaving behind the smaller bone fragments so as not to be greedy. A new shrine church was built at Bari, but was made defensible for use as a fortress against the fleets of the Ottoman Empire. A
s is true of many Eastern saints and quite a few Western ones, St. Nicholas’ bones are said to exude a myrrh-like substance. In St. Nicholas’ case, it consists of a transparent water condensate with a sweet smell, which the Italians call “manna.” (Which is fitting, because of course that’s Hebrew for “What is it?”) On the feast day of his bones’ arrival in Bari, St. Nicholas’ casket is opened in the presence of many dignitaries, the liquid is collected, and (after dilution with normal water), it is given out in vials to the faithful who need healing.
A few years after Bari built their church, a bunch of Venetian sailors showed up in Myra and attempted to steal the bones of St. Nicholas by threatening to kill everyone, but apparently got the bones of a later Nicholas — St. Nicholas of Sion, bishop of Pinara, who was a local monk in Emperor Justinian’s time — as well as a few other sets of local bones from nice-looking sepulchres in the church, like those of St. Nicholas of Sion’s uncle. But they also took the bone fragments that they had initially rejected as obviously not St. Nicholas’ bones. Just in case. Back home in Venice, though, the local hierarchy realized that the bone fragments were indeed the most valuable of the relics, and they enshrined them. The other sets of bones seem to have been entombed honorably, but of course there’s no telling which one is who.
Venetians. What you gonna do?
So there’s a church of St. Nicholas in Venice, too — San Nicolo al Lido. It’s from this church where the Doge used to sail for Venice’s “Wedding with the Sea” ceremony. The Venetians say their bone fragments also exude “manna.”
Myra still had other, non-bone relics of their great saint, so they weren’t totally deprived while under the Ottoman Empire’s Muslim rule. But they stopped being a pilgrimage spot — not that anybody was going to travel there much during a time of Mediterranean Muslim piracy, of course. But yup, this is One Of Those Things that is a grievance between East and West.
(Although there was also a lot of relic-stealing and royal appropriation in the East by folks of various Eastern churches. But this you don’t hear much about.)
The new Myra remained a Greek Christian town until the twentieth century, when Turkey expelled all Greek Christians to Greece. A new population of Turkish farmers moved into the existing town, taking over the locals’ buildings and farms. The current name of the new Myra is “Demre.”
The Turkish government and local organizations from Demre (“The Santa Claus Peace Council,” run by local Muslim boosters such as the Muslim guy who has the keys to the church) have periodically pressured Italy and the Vatican to have the bones of St. Nicholas repatriated from Bari. But since it’s still a Muslim country, and since only a tiny number of Orthodox Christians have been allowed to move into Myra and have very occasional Masses at the shrine, nobody is very interested in depriving Bari of St. Nick.
OTOH, the rivalry between Venice and Bari came to a surprise ending in the twentieth century, when it was discovered and confirmed by various tests that the bones and bone fragments all belonged to the same guy.
Over the last decade or so, archaeologists have been digging out the buried city of Myra, focusing on the old basilica. The archaeologists recently sent out a press release, announcing that with ground-penetrating radar, they have found the area which was once St. Nicholas’ shrine. Good job!
However, they have allegedly announced that they have found St. Nicholas’ bones, which seems… unlikely.
Probably what they have is yet another set of local bones in a nice sarcophagus, probably of some local dignitary who wanted to be buried close to St. Nicholas. When the locals deconsecrated the church, they didn’t deconsecrate the crypt burial areas; so they didn’t feel the need to pull out every set of sarcophagi and bones.
In fact, Turkish archaeologists didn’t even announce what the newspeople are saying they announced. All they said was that they found a crypt under the old Byzantine basilica floor in the old Myra, and that they want to get in there carefully, without damaging the mosaics on the floor. Everything else they said was labeled as pure speculation. So once again, you can’t believe what you read without checking a lot of other sources.
The situation is complicated further, because although some Muslim sects (like the Wahhabist Sunni of Saudi Arabia) think that the graves of saintly people should be destroyed as a distraction from Islam, a lot of other Sunni and Shia Muslims believe that graves of saintly people should be visited and given honor. And mosques, because obviously anybody saintly who wasn’t a Muslim must have really been a Muslim anyway. Further, some sects are totally okay with sharing a holy site with Jews and Christians, but the general tendency is to stop Jews and Christians from getting anywhere near the graves of patriarchs and saints that are revered by Muslims.
So with the “Santa Claus Peace Council,” the locals in Demre and in their province of Antalya have a big plan to make a new development, the Santa Claus Peace Village, where people of all nationalities and religions can live in peace and honor St. Nicholas. And this is where they wanted St. Nicholas’ bones to be put. But in today’s atmosphere of Muslim radicalism and Erdogan’s anti-everything, this is an extremely idealistic plan.
The group also gives out an annual “Santa Claus Peace Prize” (actually, “Noel Baba”, which is the equivalent of the French “Papa Noel”) with a highly unusual list of recipients. (The Google Translate version of Sr. Jeanine Gramick’s speech is interesting, to say the least….)
The other dumb thing that media people are saying is that “Ooh, don’t tell the kids that Santa Claus is dead!”
Well, I admit that this is a hazard if your kids aren’t from a tradition that believes in the souls of saints being alive and active in the Body of Christ, and perfectly capable of performing infinite amounts of miracles and good deeds from beyond the grave. (Which is why the stuff about Santa being a Time Lord or a jolly elf is supposed to be a joke, not an explanation.) But most Catholic and Orthodox kids are perfectly aware that Santa has bones, and that said bones are in a specific church in Italy. Even the Orthodox celebrate the translation of his bones to Bari as a feast day. “St. Nicholas’ bones!” was a pretty common medieval way to cuss.
But since St. Nicholas never married in any of his legends, Mrs. Santa Claus is Right Out.