THE SAINT who was the inspiration behind the legend of Father Christmas is believed locally to be buried in an abbey in rural Co. Kilkenny.
St Nicholas of Myra was a Greek philanthropist living over 1,700 years ago who became famed for leaving anonymous gifts for the poor – so no prizes for guessing why he became associated with Santa.
It is said that his final resting plays lies beneath a stone slab effigy on the grounds of the medieval Jerpoint Abbey – but the truth is shrouded in mystery.
Here are seven facts about St. Nick and his Irish tomb:
Saint Nicholas was literally Santa Claus
Nikolaos of Myra was born in what is now part of Turkey over 1,700 years ago. Nikolaos inherited a large fortune upon the death of his father, but was unsure of how to use the money.
He soon decided to share his new found wealth among his community by secretly delivering presents of food, clothing and money to the people of his village.
Saint Nikolaos’s legendary habit of secret gift-giving eventually inspired the legend of Santa Claus – from the Dutch word Sinterklaas – literally meaning ‘Saint Nicholas’.
Crusaders may have robbed the bones
The bones of Saint Nicholas are believed locally in Jerpoint to have been buried under a stone slab – carved with the image of a cleric with the heads of two knights behind each shoulder.
The two knights are said to be two crusaders who, so the story goes, brought Nicholas’s remains to Ireland on their way back home from the Mediterranean.
The Normans of Kilkenny were known to be keen relic hunters and could have been in Italy – where the Saint was buried – at the time.
But that’s not the only possibility
Another story tells of a French family, the de Frainets, who removed Saint Nicholas’s remains from Turkey to Italy in 1169.
The de Frainets were Normans, and when they were forced out of Italy they took many of their relics with them back to France.
But soon enough the Normans lost power in France, and Nicholas de Frainet is said to have taken the remains to Co. Kilkenny, where the family relocated.
The tomb is located in a deserted Irish town
Jerpoint was once an important medieval town where hundreds of people lived – but now lies abandoned.
The site contains the standing remains of St Nicholas’ Church and a large tower, both of which are partly overgrown and date all the way back to the 12th century.
Saint Nicholas’s slab effigy was mysteriously moved in 1839 and has been damaged in recent years by the sudden fall of a tree.
Locals are convinced the legend is true
According to local history listed on the tomb’s official website at stnicholascenter.org, the tomb’s “unusual grave slab” presides over the bones of Saint Nicholas – which were transported from Italy back to Ireland during the crusades.
"Though the church dates from 1170, the grave slab appears to be from the 1300s. The tale tells of a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint, traveling to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades.
“On retreat, as they headed home to Ireland, they seized St. Nicholas' remains, bringing them back to Kilkenny, where the bones were buried.”
A yearly Mass is said for the Santa
The 12th century Abbey which contains the tomb was built in dedication to the memory of Saint Nicholas – and nearby towns still host yearly masses in memory of him.
December 6 marks St Nicholas Day, a celebration of generosity and the act of gift giving to the less fortunate.
The day is celebrated in some parts of Europe by children who dress up as bishops begging alms for poor people.
The tomb is Ireland’s best-kept secret
Many locals do not even know of the existence of the tomb – let alone thousands of tourists who could be tempted to visit the mysterious place.
According to Callan Heritage Society chairman, Philip Lynch, the site of Saint Nicholas’s tomb deserves more recognition in Ireland.
“It is an amazing story and yet very few people in Ireland know about St Nicholas’s connection with this country. Every year now we get visitors to the site, but still not that many.”