Day 128-LIV, Bari.
Bari, March 14
The old town of Bari protrudes like a horn into the sea. It’s a place of mystery, a tale of 1001 Nights. The small white alleys wind around and lead you astray in unexpected directions. There are no straight intersecting roads like you find them in the cities of the West, built by either the Romans or the Greeks or the Americans. This old city belongs to the East. Wherever you find yourself within its ancient walls you can never see where you are going.
Suddenly a space opens up in front of you, a holy space adorned by an immaculate basilica. Here, people from all over the known world flog together in pilgrimage.
Bari is indeed a most venerable city, no less than Rome, or Jerusalem, or Mecca. For Bari is the posthumous home of Santa Claus.
It might seem a bit strange to associate Santa Claus with a sunny Mediterranean city like Bari, but they say it’s true, the man who is at the root of the legend, is buried right here in this basilica.
To the faithful, he is known as Saint Nicholas. He is venerated in the East and the West, by catholics and protestants, by believers and atheists. And they say he performed some mighty miraculous deeds during his lifetime.
Now, the facts don’t matter. The truth doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters is the story.
Saint Nicholas lived in the Greco-Roman province of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, during the twilight years of the empire. He was bishop of Myra. His deeds are remembered with spectacular celebrations, twice a year, on the day of his death, the 6th of December, and on the day his remains arrived in Bari, the 9th of May.
On one of my previous travels I was fortunate enough to be in Bari to see the procession which narrated his miraculous acts.
In those closing years of antiquity, during a horrible famine, a ferocious butcher had slaughtered three children and turned them into ham. Saint Nicholas was invited to taste, but he knew. He revealed himself, he punished the butcher and he brought the children back to life.
The Saint was also famous for saving the honour of three adolescent sisters. They were so poor that they couldn’t afford a dowry, and without a husband they would probably have been forced to live their lives as prostitutes. But Saint Nicholas wouldn’t let it happen. At night, he filled the young girls’ stockings with riches, enough to guarantee them a happy marriage.
When famine struck again on another occasion, the Saint showed his mercy to a crew of sailors by multiplying their cargo of wheat, over and over again. It was enough to make bread and sweet spiced biscuits for many starving cities all over the East.
After Saint Nicholas passed away he was buried in his home ground where he was revered for many centuries by the faithful. But at a certain point, the faithful were conquered by an alien religion.
With the advance of Islam in the middle ages, many of the old centres of orthodox Christianity entered the vast domains of the caliphs and the sultans of the East.
At that time, the West was profoundly christian. The various cities competed with each other in piousness and status by collecting every type of holy memorabilia. Splinters of the cross, thorns of the crown, robes, bones, teeth and skulls. As a city you didn’t count if you didn’t own at least a piece of saint.
The most glorious cities of the age wouldn’t limit themselves to mere fingertips or toe nails. They wanted the entire skeletons. The sailors of Venice subtracted the remains of the evangelist St. Mark from the muslims in Egypt. And with another memorable secret operation, the sailors from Bari raided the muslim city of Myra, dug up Saint Nicholas, carried him off to the harbour, and took him home.
Thus, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of Bari.
In the centuries that followed Bari would become part of the kingdom of Naples, and as such it came to be dominated by Spain.
This might explain why people in another pious seafaring nation – Holland – thought that Saint Nicholas came from the Iberian peninsula. In another version, the ‘Spanish connection’ comes from the oranges. These usually arrived in Holland from Spain during the beginning of December, when the Saint came to the Low Lands to give sweets to the children who had been good, and whip lashes to those who had been bad.
Holland is especially devoted to Saint Nicholas. Up to today, the Saint is celebrated every year on the evening of December 5 with songs, surprises and sweets. The people call him Sinterklaas.
When the Dutch founded the city of New Amsterdam in 1625, they brought their Sinterklaas tradition to America. Together with other Dutch characteristics and morals, it remained a part of the American culture also after the city was taken over by the English and renamed New York in 1664.
During colonial times, the figure of Saint Nicholas merged with the British character of Father Christmas, and his feast was integrated with Christmas celebrations. The Americans called him Santa Claus. His place on the calendar was taken over by the local holiday of Thanksgiving
However many times the veneration for the original Byzantine saint had changed, he had always been regarded as a moral figure. A judge of good and evil. A benevolent father who rewards his faithful, but who isn’t afraid to punish them in case they deserve it.
The last and most radical change of image, both in style and content, would come in the 20th century, when Santa Claus was adopted by the Coca-Cola Company.
Under the influence of the beverage brewer, Santa changed his bishop’s robe for a bright red polar outfit. He became a jolly old man, with a smile for all. He wouldn’t judge you. He would reward you not on the base of your conduct, but on the base of you purchasing power. He would deliver all the presents you could afford on Christmas eve, on board his flying raindeer sleigh.
Old Saint Nick means different things to different people all over the world. For some he is the original Byzantine saint, for others he is the jolly old man with a sexy bottle in his hand, and for others yet he is everything in between.
One way or another, Santa means something to all of us. Also to the March to Athens.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Bari, he is the patron saint of sailors, he is the patron saint of all Greece. And as it turns out, ‘Nikolaus’ means ‘victory of the people’.
Santa is the 99%. He is our man.