Across Ireland, towns and villages are starting to get into gear for Christmas. Streets are being festooned with garlands of lights, but of course it is too soon to turn them on. Christmas puddings are mostly made by now and waiting for the big day. Christmas craft market organizers are frantically doing their last minute organizing, and plans for Santa’s pre-holiday visits to meet children and discuss their lists are being finalized.
While Santa Claus is welcomed and loved around the world, in Ireland some suspect that he might favor us a tiny little bit. It isn’t because of the signs decorating so many houses that say ‘Santa please stop here!’ Nor is it because his odds of getting a nip of whiskey are so much better here than in many places. Not many people outside of County Kilkenny know this, but Ireland does have a connection with the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of children whose generosity and kindness transformed him over time into the beloved and magical Santa Claus we know today.
Saint Nicholas was born in what is now Turkey, in a village called Patara sometime around 280 AD. His parents were devout Christians, and they were also very wealthy, but tragically died while he was young. Nicholas inherited not only their wealth, but their faith as well. He gave his inheritance to those in need and devoted his life to helping the poor, especially young people. He became the bishop of Myra and performed many miraculous deeds to help vulnerable young people – including sneaking into a house to leave money for three sisters’ dowries so they could be married instead of going into servitude.
When Nicholas died on December 6th 343 AD, he was buried locally but his remains did not get to rest in peace. His tomb in Myra became a popular place for pilgrimages, and the area was politically volatile. Centuries after his death, devotees began to fear that Myra was not a safe resting place, or perhaps they just wanted a bit of the beloved saint near them. The first to remove remains from his grave were Italians, and they took a portion of his remains to Bari, Italy. Venice also wanted to host Nicholas’ relics, and later did. In the years that followed, various other groups helped themselves to the saint’s relics.
Today, relics of St. Nicholas are scattered around the world in places known and unknown. Legend has it that two Irish-Norman knights returning from the Crusades passed through Myra and took some of St. Nicholas’ remains home with them to the village of Newtown Jerpoint in County Kilkenny. Only the ruined Church of St. Nicholas remains of the village, and it is on private farmland. The ruins include an ancient tomb with a grave slab featuring the image of a bishop and two heads.
In truth, we cannot claim that Santa has roots here, but it does appear that some of Saint Nicholas’ remains are finally resting in peace in beautiful Kilkenny. And of course, Ireland has always welcomed Santa like he was one of our own and offered him the cead mile failte we are famous for.