Relics of Saint Nicholas—the Real ‘Santa Claus’—Leave Italy for First Time in 1,000 Years

st nicholas
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty

Relics of the fourth-century saint Nicholas, who inspired the beloved figure of Santa Claus, have left Italy for the first time in nearly 1,000 years, arriving in Moscow for veneration by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The remains of St. Nicholas have been housed in the southern Italian city of Bari since 1087, when they were brought over from present-day Turkey by a group of Italian merchants.

In what is being described as “a historic event,” a “gesture of love and peace” and a “seed of ecumenism,” relics of the saint have left Bari for the first time in 930 years, transferred to Moscow where the sainted bishop of Myra is especially loved.

A five-inch bone fragment from the saint’s rib was deposited in a a golden reliquary adorned with precious stones and bas reliefs that recount the life and miracles of Nicholas. The relic arrived in Moscow on a special flight from Italy on Sunday afternoon and will stay there for a week before being transferred to Saint Petersburg, and eventually back to Italy.

The sharing of the relic is being touted as fruit of the historical encounter between Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, just prior to the Pope’s visit to Mexico in February 2016.

The gesture is also being seen as an overture on the part of the Catholic Church toward closer relations with the Orthodox Church, who split in the Great Schism of 1054.

The archbishop of Bari, Francesco Cacucci, accompanied the sacred rib to Russia, along with the prior of the Basilica of Saint Nicholas, Father Ciro Capotosto, the mayor of Bari, Antonio Decaro, and the president of the southern Italian region of Puglia, Michele Emiliano.

According to Mayor Decaro, “Bari has shown itself once again to be a bridge between East and West, and in this moment in which selfishness seems to have the upper hand in the world, a message of peace has emerged from Bari.”

Nicholas was born during the third century in the village of Patara, which at the time was part of Greece and is now part of Turkey. He became the Bishop of Myra while still a young man, being known for his generosity to those in need.  His reputed habit of giving gifts, often in secret, gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus – a variant of Saint Nicholas. The iconic red hat and coat were taken from the bishop’s vestments that Nicholas was believed to wear.

St. Nicholas is venerated by Catholics as well as the Orthodox, and is the patron saint of sailors and merchants, as well as pawnbrokers, archers, travelers, bankers, children and repentant thieves.

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