In some parts of Italy the feast of San Nicola, patron saint of Bari, ushers in the Christmas season with the giving of gifts on the eve or morning of December 6, his onomastico (name day). Although many stories of San Nicola’ s life may be mythical, he did inspire the figure of a beloved old man—whether he’s known as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) or Santa Claus—who gives out presents in December.

The son of a wealthy Christian family, San Nicola grew up in a Greek-speaking colony of the Roman Empire, now part of Turkey, and became bishop of the city of Myra. In addition to saving a sailor from drowning during a voyage to Egypt, Nicola also reportedly restored three murdered children to life. And so he became the patron saint of sailors and children.

In the most famous legend about the saint, an impoverished man in his diocese could not afford dowries for his three daughters, which meant they would never find husbands. With no money to feed and clothe the girls, the desperate father was planning to sell them into prostitution.

On three separate occasions, Nicola, who had inherited a fortune, tossed a sack of gold down the family’s chimney. The coins landed in socks and shoes left to dry by the fire, inspiring a Christmas Eve tradition. As word of his generosity spread, every anonymous gift was attributed to the kindly bishop.

When San Nicola died of old age (a rarity at the time) in 343, his bones were placed in the cathedral of Myra, which became a popular pilgrimage destination. After the Turks conquered the city in 1087, sailors from Bari, racing against Venetian sailors with the same intent, rescued the saint’s remains and brought them to rest in their home town in southern Italy.

Bari’s fedeli (worshipers or faithful believers) built an enormous basilica over the saint’s relics, which reportedly produce a clear liquid called Manna with mysterious healing powers. Every year a three-day festival celebrates the arrival of the  relics in Bari and the collection of the holy Manna on May 8.

Over the centuries San Nicola inspired the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas, from a shortened version of Nicola’s name in Dutch, which emigrants carried to North America. When the British took over the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which later became New York City, they also adopted the tradition of the gift-giving Sinterklaas. However, they mispronounced the Dutch name, and Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.

Today’s chubby, red-suited, white-bearded American Santa Claus may bear little physical resemblance to San Nicola di Bari. But both figures share a generosity of spirit  and love of children that remain timeless.

Give the gift of Italy this Christmas!  

For more information and ordering links, click on the titles: LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language;  MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.