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This artwork of Saint Nicholas hangs in a Greek Orthodox church in Madaba, Jordan. This saint's secret gift giving gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus.
This artwork of Saint Nicholas hangs in a Greek Orthodox church in Madaba, Jordan. This saint's secret gift giving gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus. (iStock)

If you weren’t born Catholic, you could be forgiven for not knowing much about the more than 10,000 saints venerated by the largest Christian church. According to the U.S. Catholic website, research carried out by 17th- and 18th-century scholars of the faith determined that while several saints’ stories were backed by solid historical evidence, the lives of others were based on legends predating Christianity or seemed to be made up entirely. But the celebrations recalling the professed virtues of many of them are a very real part of European culture today. In the period known as Advent, the four weeks spent in anticipation of the celebration of Jesus’ birth, two saints’ feast days stand out: those of St. Nicholas and Santa Lucia. While we cannot travel this year, we can join these celebrations in spirit.

Saint Nicholas: Nicholas is thought to have been born in 270 in Patara, a city on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, at the time a part of the Roman Empire, and to have died in 343. The son of wealthy Christian parents, he was made the Bishop of Myra at an early age. Of his many good deeds, perhaps best known was how he secretly dropped sacks of gold coins through the window of a poor father, allowing him to provide dowries for his three daughters. It’s suggested his anonymous gift-giving habit gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, coopers, fishermen, brewers, pharmacists, the falsely accused, repentant thieves and many others.

In 1087, merchants from the Italian city of Bari sailed to where St. Nicholas’s relics were kept, unlawfully seized them and brought them back to their hometown. Although much of what’s left of his earthly being remains enshrined in Bari’s impressive Basilica di San Nicola, it’s far from the only place to claim parts of him. The second-most important repository of his relics is the church of San Nicoló in the Lido of Venice; other churches housing fingers and various slivers of him include those in Minsk, Belarus; Sint-Niklaas, Belgium; Sofia, Bulgaria; Brighton, England; Brauweiler, Germany; Utrecht and Maastricht, Netherlands; St. Petersburg, Russia; Murcia, Spain and Fribourg, Switzerland, along with a host of other places around the world.

On his feast day of Dec. 6, Saint Nicholas is the focus of celebrations throughout much of Europe. In Greece, his role as the protector of sailors is celebrated with festivities aboard ships. In many northern countries, it’s a day for gift-giving. Children might leave carrots in their shoes for the saint’s horse before going to bed and wake up to find small gifts for themselves. Depending on where he is on his pre-holiday outings, he keeps a variety of companions, from the hairy, scary Krampus in Austria, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, an angel and a devil in the Czech Republic, to the out-of-fashion and controversial Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands.

Some of Europe’s largest-scale Nicholas-related events include a mass celebration of Sinterklaas’ arrival by ship and a horseback parade in mid-November in Amsterdam (this year’s COVID-19 version took place without spectators on Nov. 14 and was watched by a TV audience of more than two million); a meet-and-greet with Mikulas on the Old Town Square in Prague Dec. 5; and two days of parades, processions and merriment in the streets of Nancy, France, on the first weekend of December.

With most public events associated with the upcoming holiday season cancelled for this year, our next-best chance to fete St. Nicholas might come in spring. Bari’s Festa di San Nicola, a three-day affair of parades, period costumes and a boat journey of the saint’s bones around the bay, traditionally takes place May 7–9, in accordance with the date attributed to the transfer of his relics.

Santa Lucia: Born into a noble family in Syracuse, Sicily in 283 AD and martyred at the age of 20, this saint is revered in Italy and Scandinavia, particularly Sweden. Legend holds Lucia vowed herself to a Christian life at an early age, and was known for her compassion to the poor. Her generous behavior displeased her betrothed, himself a pagan. After he reported her Christian beliefs to the Roman authorities in charge at the time, she was sentenced to a life of prostitution. When the guards tried to move her into the brothel, divine intervention rendered her immovable. Wood was stacked around her and set alight, but Lucia remained impervious to the flames. Only when she was stabbed in the neck did she succumb to death.

A famous image of the saint includes Caravaggio’s Burial of Saint Lucy (as she’s also known) which hangs in the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia on Syracuse’s Cathedral Square. Painters often depict her as blind and holding a golden plate on which two eyeballs rest. St. Lucia is the patron saint of the blind, as well as authors, laborers, electricians, martyrs, peasants and many others. The relics of Santa Lucia are displayed at the Chiesa di San Geremia in the Cannaregio district of Venice.

On Dec. 13, her date of death, the feast day of Santa Lucia enlivens many parts of Italy, particularly in her home town. There, a weeklong celebration includes a procession in which a silver statue of Santa Lucia is carried through her streets, fireworks, and the eating of a wheat dish called cuccìa. Last year’s solemnities were live streamed at www.gds.it and www.gazzettadelsud.it, as well as the Facebook page of the Giornale di Sicilia.

How Lucia came to be so revered in Sweden remains unclear, but with a name deriving from the Latin world “lux” for light, it’s thought likely her legend and feast day were adopted as a way to celebrate the triumph of light in the darkest days of the year. (According to the old Julian calendar, Dec. 13 would have closely coincided with the winter solstice.) Young women, traditionally the eldest daughters, don long white robes with red sashes and crown themselves with fresh greenery and lit candles. In villages and towns throughout the land, processions and concerts herald the start of the Christmas season. S-shaped saffron and raisin buns known as Lussekatter, washed down with mulled wine, are the day’s traditional fare. Sveriges Television (SVT) broadcasts celebrations held in a different part of the country each year as part of its traditional Luciamorgon program.

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