Saint Nicholas & Jerpoint Abbey

Jerpoint Abbey in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny was once a major town in Ireland. But how exactly did the remains of Saint Nicholas, a 4th century nobleman from Turkey and the inspiration for Santa Claus, come to rest in southeast Ireland?

Jerpoint Abbey
The ruins of Jerpoint Abbey, Co. Kilkenny.

There are many myths and stories surrounding Saint Nicholas. What historians and theologians can agree on was that he born in the 4th century to a wealthy family in Patara, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He was consecrated bishop of the coastal town of Myra in the territory of Lycia.

Today he is venerated in both the Orthodox and Catholic church, and is the patron saint of merchants, sailors, prisoners and children. He is closely associated with Russia, Greece, Holland, Austria, France, Italy, Belgium, Aberdeen and New York and Turkey.

He was buried locally and remained undisturbed until 1087 when returning crusading knights removed his bones and brought them to Bari in southern Italian to prevent them falling into the hands of the advancing Saracen armies. Apparently after landing in Italy two Irish knights took his remains back to Ireland. They buried the remains in St. Nicholas’s church in Newtown Jerpoint, where it’s claimed by some they now remain.

The grave slab features St. Nicholas with the heads of two knights said to be the heads of the two crusader knights who brought his remains to Ireland. This could very well be the case as the Normans in Kilkenny were keen collectors of religious relics and it is known that Norman knights participated in the Holy Land Crusades.

Tomb of Saint Nicholas at Jerpoint Abbey
Tomb of Saint Nicholas at Jerpoint Abbey

Another version of the story tells of a French family, the de Frainets, who removed Nicholas’ remains from Myra to Bari, Italy, in 1169 when Bari was under the Normans. The de Frainets were crusaders to the Holy Land and also owned land in Thomastown, Ireland. After the Normans were forced out of Bari, the de Frainets moved to Nice, France, taking the relics with them. When the Normans lost power in France, Nicholas de Frainet moved to Ireland. This story has the relics being buried in Jerpoint in 1200.

Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas is often referenced as the source of our present-day Santa Claus. He was often depicted with three bags or balls symbolising three bags of gold. It was common in the time of Saint Nicholas for a young woman’s father to offer prospective husbands a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry.

The story goes that there was once a poor man who had three daughters – his daughters were at risk of being sold as slaves without the money to pay their dowry. The stories differ from St. Nicholas dropping three bags of gold down the chimney to throwing the gold through the window where it landed in a stocking hung up beside the fire to dry. Either way St. Nicholas paid a dowry so that the daughters didn’t have to be sold. From then on, when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.

St. Nicholas has many modern namesakes such as Pere Noel, Papai Noel, Viejo Pascuero, Dun Che Lao Ren, Kerstman, Joulupukki, Pere Noel, Weihnachtsmann, Kanakaloka, Mikulas, Babbo Natale, Hoteiosho, Julenissen, Swiety Mikolaj, Ded Moroz, Jultomten.

Statue of Saint Nicholas
Statue of Saint Nicholas

In some countries, including parts of Austria and Germany, present giver became the ‘Christkind’ (Kris Kringle in the USA). Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle and St Nicholas became ‘Sinterklaas’ which translates to the ‘Santa Clause’ that we are familiar with today. His costume and style also varies depending on location.

Another mysticism exists about St. Nicholas. A clear liquid exuded from his body after he was buried in Bari, named ‘Manna of Saint Nicholas’. Many pilgrims have drank a diluted solution of this as they believe it to have healing powers. Officially St. Nicholas’s remains are believed to still be in Bari, and have become the subject of a diplomatic dispute as the Turkish government are seeking the return of his remains.

St. Nicholas died in 343AD. Many Christian churches and countries observe December 6th as his feast day with great celebrations, processions, services and gift giving.