Santa Claus is definitely real and possibly residing in Co Kilkenny
Amid the ruins of a lost medieval town lie what are thought to be the remains of St Nicholas
Bas-relief at Jerpoint Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded in 1158 in Co Kilkenny. Photograph: DeAgostini/Getty Images
The first thing to say, of course, is that Santa Claus does not have a grave.
Santa Claus cannot have a grave because Santa Claus can never die.
Santa is – as every child knows – a magical being, given life and strength by the power of belief. Santa lives in the North Pole and every year, at Christmas time, he sails the night sky in an enchanted sleigh towed by flying reindeer. The most famous of those is Rudolf, whose red nose has saved Christmas more than once.
This Christmas, as every Christmas, Santa will visit children across the world and he will do so as long as there are children who believe in him.
Perhaps, though, when Santa delivers presents to the children of Thomastown in Co Kilkenny, he stops to take a wistful look toward the remains of the lost town of Newtown Jerpoint, and the ruined Church of St Nicholas. After all, that’s where he’s buried.
You see, before Santa became Santa, a very long time ago, he was a man named Nicholas. He was born during the time of the Roman empire, more than 1,700 years ago, on March 15th in AD 270, in the port city of Myra, in what is now southern Turkey.
Nicholas, the son of wealthy Christian parents, was a very religious child. His parents died when he was young, and his uncle, who was the local bishop and also called Nicholas, raised him. In time, Nicholas was ordained a priest and years later he too became a bishop. He became renowned for his generosity and his secret gift-giving.
During his lifetime, tales of his great kindness spread and with them legends and tall tales of miracles he had performed. It was said he saved three young women from shame by giving their impoverished father dowries, which Nicholas may have thrown down the chimney.
He was believed to have saved the city of Myra from famine in 311 by performing a loaves-and-fishes miracle with a cargo of wheat. He was even rumoured to have resurrected three murdered children.
Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was convened by the Roman emperor Constantine, and which would set in stone the details of early Christian doctrine, and an agreed, uniform Christian creed.
Legend has it that Nicholas – who believed Jesus was co-eternal with God the Father (meaning Jesus existed with God and as God since the beginning of time) and was thus as divine as God, became so angry at the heretic Arius – who contended that Jesus was created by God and was thus less divine – that Nicholas punched him in the face. (Later years seem to have mellowed him.)
Stories are all about the little details, and some ingredients were added to the story of Jesus at the emperor’s insistence, probably for entirely temporal, political reasons.
English writer Alan Moore contends that Rome was “a city divided by different theological factions, the largest and noisiest probably being the early Christian zealots. Then there was the cult of Mithras, which was smaller but included the bulk of the Roman military. Finally, there was the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, which was relatively small but very popular among the merchant class.
“Constantine’s posse came up with a composite religion to unite Rome: Christianity would incorporate large chunks of Mithraism, including the stuff about being born in a cave surrounded by shepherds and animals on December 25th, and would make concessions to the cult of Sol Invictus, the Undefeated Sun, by sticking a big sun-symbol behind the messiah’s head in all the publicity hand-outs. This is politics.”
It is ironic that Nicholas, a man who would become so closely associated with Christmas, would be part of the committee which shaped the story of Jesus, whose birth would be celebrated on the day Nicholas helped to choose.
Being human, Nicholas eventually grew old and – at what was then the ancient age of 73 – he died on December 6th in 343.
But that was only to be the beginning.
His tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage but – and this gets a bit gruesome, so grown-ups look away – in 1087 Italian sailors seized half of St Nicholas’ skeleton and brought it to Bari, where those remains lie today in two churches, one Catholic and one Orthodox Christian. Venetian sailors later claimed the remaining fragments of the skeleton and brought them to Venice, where the Church of St Nicholas was built.
However, there is another legend about St Nicholas.
It is said that two 12th-century crusaders brought the remains of St Nicholas as far from danger as they could, taking him to what was then the ends of the earth – to Ireland.
Some believe the remains of St Nicholas were buried at the Church of St Nicholas in what is now the lost town of Newtown Jerpoint, two miles from Thomastown in Co Kilkenny. Newtown Jerpoint was founded in the 12th century at a toll bridge on the river Nore (Jerpoint meaning “Nore bridge”). For 500 years, it was a thriving town, but now all that remains are ruins on the privately owned Jerpoint Park.
In death, Nicholas became greater than a man, greater even than a saint
There is a stone slab at the Church of St Nicholas, carved with the image of a cleric, with a knight standing behind either shoulder. Some believe this depicts Nicholas and the two crusaders. Others say the grave is more likely that of a local priest.
It is a historical fact that Norman knights took part in the crusades and certainly the Normans in Kilkenny were well-known as collectors of religious relics. Who really knows the truth?
What’s important is that in death, Nicholas became greater than a man, greater even than a saint.
Nicholas became a story.
Everyone knows that stories get stronger every time they are told. And if it’s a really powerful story, like a story about a holy man who secretly gives presents – perhaps down a chimney – well, a story like that can become magical.
The legend of Nicholas grew as it spread, gaining power as it went. In Europe, it bumped into Martin Luther’s legend of the Christkind – a magical version of the baby Jesus who gives gifts to children – and absorbed it. In Britain, it met the story of Father Christmas (think Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present) and absorbed that too.
Some claim Santa owes a debt to Thor’s father, the Norse All-Father Odin. Atop his eight-legged steed Sleipnir, Odin led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession across the mid-winter sky. In some versions of the legend he gives out presents to his own people.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, where he’s celebrated still, St Nicholas became Sinterklaas.
Contrary to persistent myths, Santa wore red and white long before Coca-Cola featured him in its advertising
By the time the story reached the New World, Sinterklaas was Americanised to Santa Claus and in 1823, the publication of “A Visit from St Nicholas” (“Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house…”) gave fresh impetus to the legend.
In 1863, cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa as a portly, white-bearded man giving toys to children and the picture was almost complete. The North Pole, the elves, Rudolf, Mrs Claus and all the other details grew from there.
Contrary to persistent myths, Santa wore red and white long before Coca-Cola featured him in its advertising. In fact, Santa as we know him, in his white-trimmed red suit and cap, appeared on the cover of Puck magazine in the first years of the 20th century.
Given life by the power of belief, Santa Claus has become the embodiment of Christmas for millions of children around the world, a magical being of great joy and kindness.
This Christmas Eve, even as he races around the world, perhaps Santa will find the time to stop at Newtown Jerpoint, to stand in the pale light of the crescent moon, by the ruined Church of St Nicholas, and pay his respects to the man he was before he became Santa.
Guided tours of the lost town of Newtown Jerpoint and the Church of St Nicholas are available daily between April and October, and off-season by arrangement. For details, see jerpointpark.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.