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( Originally Published 1909 )
St. Nicholas, as I have said, died in the year 342 and was buried with great honor in the cathedral at Myra.
Being the patron saint of such roving folk as sailors, merchants and travellers it was only natural that his body should have lain in perpetual peril from thievish hands. The relics of saints were highly prized because it was held that they performed miracles on behalf of the townsfolk and of the strangers who visited their shrines. Of course the relics of so great and, popular a saint as Nicholas were especially coveted, and most so by the classes of whom he was the patron.
In those rude days it was believed that no saint was greatly troubled by the manner in which his body was procured. Even if it were stolen and reburied elsewhere by the robbers themselves the body worked miracles in its new abode as cheerfully as it had done in the old one. Moreover it drew trade and custom to any city in which it was enshrined and so brought wealth to the people of the entire neighborhood.
In fact pilgrims from various parts of the world came in crowds to the shrine at Myra. As the fame of Saint Nicholas increased so did the value of his relics. At various times during the first six centuries after his burial attempts were made to carry off his body by force or by fraud.
None of these attempts was successful until, in the year 1084, certain merchants from the city of Bari, in southeastern Italy, landed at Myra to find that the entire countryside had been laid waste by an invasion of the Turks. All the men who could bear arms had gathered together and were now gone in pursuit of the invaders. Three monks only had been left behind to stand guard over the shrine of Saint Nicholas.
It was an easy task for the merchants of Bari to overpower these monks, break open the coffin which contained the body and bear it away with them to their own city.
Here it was received with great joy. A fine new church was built on the site of an old one which had been dedicated to Saint Stephen and which was now torn down to make room for its successor. This was to serve as a shrine for the stolen body. The new church is still standing and though it is now old it is still magnificent. In a crypt or vault under its high altar lies all that was mortal of the one-time Bishop of Myra. On the very day of the reburial, so it is said, no less than thirty people who attended the ceremony were cured of their various ailments. Such is the story that is generally accepted. But another story was and is told by the people of Venice. They, too, claim that they possess the body of Saint Nicholas, and insist that it was taken from Myra by Venetian merchants in the year 1100, and reburied in Venice by the citizens.
They do not accept the story told by the Bari merchants, but declare that the latter carried off from another spot the body of another saint, possibly of the same name, which they palmed off upon their fellow citizens as the body of the former Bishop of Myra.
The true body, they claim, is that which lies today, as it has lain for centuries, in the church of St. Nicholas on the Lido. The Lido is a bank of sand which projects, promontory fashion, out of the Grand Canal in Venice into the Adriatic Sea.
The fame of a holy man so closely connected with two great trading ports of the Middle Ages was sure to spread wider and wider among the nations of Europe. And, indeed, we find that everywhere sailors acknowledged him as their special guide and protector and sang his praises wherever they landed.
Both at Bari and at Venice the churches dedicated in his honor stand close to the mouth of the harbor. Venetian crews on their way out to sea would land at the Lido and proceed to the church of St. Nicholas, there to ask for a blessing on their voyage. There also they would stop on their home-coming to give thanks for a safe return. Sailors of Bari would in the same way honor the shrine in which lay what they claimed was the true body of Saint Nicholas.
Many tales of miraculous escapes from shipwreck, due to the intercession of their patron, were related by seamen and travellers, not only at home, but at the various ports where they stopped, so that the name and fame of the good Saint Nicholas grew more resplendent every year. Churches erected in his honor abound in the fishing villages and harbors of Europe.
In England alone, before the Reformation, there were 376 churches which bore his name. The largest parish church in the entire land is that of St. Nicholas at Yarmouth, which was built in the twelfth century and retains that name to the present day. Some of the other churches were rebaptized by the Protestants.
The churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas in Catholic countries are especially dear to people who make their living out of the sea. Sailors and fishermen when ashore frequent them, and if they have just escaped from any of the perils of the deep they show gratitude to their patron by hanging up on the church walls what are known as votive pictures. These are either prints of the saint or sketches, rudely drawn by local artists, which represent the danger that the sailors had run and the manner in which they had escaped: Often a figure of Saint Nicholas appears in the darkened heavens to calm: the f ears of the imperilled mariners.
It is fishermen and sailors also who take the chief part in the great festival in honor of Saint Nicholas that is celebrated at Bari on the fifth land sixth of December in every year. Bari, it may be well to explain, is a very old and still a very important seaport on the eastern coast of southern Italy. It is situated on a small peninsula projecting into the Adriatic. From very early days the city has been the official seat of an archbishop and hence possesses a grand old cathedral.
Grand, however, as is this cathedral, it is eclipsed both in beauty and in popular regard by the church of Saint Nicholas which I have already mentioned as containing the bones of the saint. These repose in a sepulchre, or huge tomb, that stands in a magnificent crypt some twenty feet beneath the high altar. Water trickles out through the native rock which forms the tomb. It is collected by the priests on a sponge attached to a reed, is squeezed into bottles, and sold or given away under the name of "Manna of Saint Nicholas" as a cure for many ailments.
On the eve of Saint Nicholas' Day, Vthat is on the day before it (December 5th) the city of Bari is overrun by hosts of pilgrims from the neighboring cities, as well as others from the furthest corners of Italy and even from Mediterranean France and Spain and Adriatic Austria. All Catholic mariners whose ships happen to be lying in port at the time are sure to join the throng.
The pilgrims carry staffs decorated with olive, palm or pine branches. From each staff depends a water bottle, which is to be filled with the manna of Saint Nicholas. Most of the pilgrims are barefoot. All are clad in the picturesque costumes in use in their native places on holiday occasions.
On entering the church the pilgrims may, if they choose, make a complete circuit of it, moving around on their knees with their foreheads pressed every now and then against the marble pavement. Often a little child leads them by means of a string or handkerchief, one end being held in the mouth of the pilgrim.
Next day, December 6th,-the actual feast. of Saint Nicholas, is celebrated by a procession of the seafaring men of Bari. Rising at daybreak they enter the church early in the morning. The priests, who have assembled to greet them, take down from the altar a wooden image of Saint Nicholas, clad in the robes of a bishop. This is handed over to the care of the paraders for the rest of the day. The priests may accompany the image only as far as the outer gate of the church. The procession, with the image in the hands of its leaders, files out into the street and, followed by the populace, visits the cathedral and other sacred or public places. Then the leaders take Saint Nicholas out to sea in a boat. Hundreds of other boats accommodate their fellow paraders, as also such of the citizens as can afford the luxury, and follow Saint Nicholas over the waves.
The shore meanwhile is lined with the bulk of the populace of Bari and the pilgrim visitors who eagerly await the return of the image at nightfall. Bonfires are then burned, rockets are shot off, everybody who possesses a candle or torch lights it and the people fall in line with the paraders to restore the sacred image to its guardians at the church.