According to the BBC, a Turkish archaeologist is asking for the supposed relics of Saint Nicholas (c 270-343×6 CE) to be returned from the Italian city of Bari to his home town of Demre, the ancient Lycian city of Myra. Nevzat Çevik, archaeologist for the town, claims that the saint had wished for his bones to remain in the place where he lived, and although he has not provided any evidence that this was Saint Nicholas’s true desire, it seems likely enough that a saintly bishop would want his bones to remain in the community for which he cared.
Born to wealthy parents in the Greek colony of Patara who died while he was still a child, he was subsequently raised by an uncle, also called Nicholas, who was Bishop of Patara. The boy was pious and his uncle instituted him as a Reader in his church, later ordaining him as a priest. He was appointed Bishop of Myra while still young and remained there until his death, aged around 75. During the persecution of Christians by Diocletian, he was exiled and imprisoned but returned to his diocese afterwards. He was interred in a reused Greek sarcophagus that survives in the Church of St Nicholas.
The bones were taken from his tomb in Demre in 1087 by sailors from Bari in Apulia (Italy) during the confusion caused by a Muslim invasion of what remained of the Roman Empire. The local Orthodox monks protested, but the Italians removed the bones for reasons of “security”, a situation that sounds all too familiar in the early twenty-first century. A pious rationalisation of the story has it that the saint appeared to the sailors, begging them to take his bones to safety. Of course, it was only reported after the remains had arrived in Italy. One version of the story claims that most of the remains were taken to Venice, the Barian sailors keeping only an arm.
Saint Nicholas went on to international superstardom. His reputation for giving surprise gifts (based on an account of his paying the dowries of three daughters of a pauper, who might otherwise have been sold into slavery) led to his being associated with the gift-giving of mid-winter, originally part of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. There were also pagan Germanic spirits who were thought to give gifts around the mid-winter festival (the Old English Geol, modern Yule). These ideas combined in the English concept of Father Christmas. Under the guise of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas, he entered the multi-ethnic American tradition as Santa Claus. The all-pervading nature of American popular culture during the twentieth century exported the utterly ahistorical Santa Claus around the world, to the ridiculous point that there is now a statue of a fat, white-bearded man dressed in red in the centre of Demre.
Yesterday (28 December 2009), the Turkish government issued a formal request to the Italian government for the return of St Nicholas’s bones. What is the purpose and what are the motives for doing so? Seen in its wider context, this is part of two issues: the “repatriation” of the remains of indigenous peoples taken by colonial powers for “scientific research” and the return of antiquities looted by the same colonial powers. Now, these are serious moral issues to which there are no easy answers. Yes, the colonial powers often behaved abominably towards their subject peoples and sought to control not only their lives but also, in some cases, their dead remains too. Nevertheless, there were scientific advances in physical anthropology from the study of their remains, although that does not excuse the removal of those remains. However, does this mean that all human remains should be returned to the people who claim descent from or cultural affiliation with them? While it may be difficult to argue that the government of the United Kingdom ought not to return the bones and artefacts of, say, Australian aboriginal groups, who have a strong moral claim to those remains, should bones from a Romano-British cemetery be handed over for disposal to a neo-pagan group making similar demands? I think that most people can see that this is rather less reasonable a case.
So where do the bones of Saint Nicholas of Myra fit in? They were not looted by a colonial power (the medieval Italian states had no control over the Roman Empire of Byzantium except during the awful Fourth Crusade), nor were they taken for scientific reasons. They were taken because of the medieval superstition about the power of relics. Many Christian and Muslim sects have still not abandoned the belief that relics have magical properties, allowing the believer closer access to their chosen deity. In the case of the bones of St Nicholas, the magical power, one suspects, is related to tourism. They will act as a magnet for Demre, not for religious reasons but for what seems to have become the new True Meaning of Christmas™: commerce.