Presumably the Dutch don’t suffer Father Christmas trauma in the way that British children do – viz, discovering that he doesn’t exist. For the Dutch, he is St Nicholas, and he is the real deal. They have special biscuits for the feast of St Nicholas – spicy ones, with almonds – and he comes in the night to leave little presents in children’s shoes. For parents, this must be preferable to Christmas stockings, on the basis that you can only get a limited amount into a shoe.
But there isn’t much doubt that he and Father Christmas are one. In Clement Clarke Moore’s The Night Before Christmas of 1823, which gave us Santa as we now know him (the red coat came later), the narrator instantly recognised St Nick. And after the reindeers land on his roof, “Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound”.
Anyway, St Nicholas’s existence has come back into public view rather dramatically this month. Prof Tom Higham and Dr Georges Kazan, directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College’s Advanced Studies Centre, have published a report of tests on one of his bones – from a relic originally from Lyons and now in the possession of a priest in Illinois. The radiocarbon results date the relic to the 4th century AD – the time that St Nicholas died (around 343 AD). So the bone could in principle be authentic.
Prof Higham said: “Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself.”
Most of the bones of the saint are in the Basilica of St Nicholas in Bari, where they are buried in a crypt beneath a marble altar, with others preserved in the church of San Nicolò al Lido in Venice. They too will be subjected to the same process as the Lyons relic to determine their age. By dint of DNA analysis, we can discover a good deal about the age, gender and height of the individual concerned. Through technology those dry bones live.
I visited the Bari shrine years ago. The marble altar is surmounted by St Nicholas’s silver bust. There’s not a trace of the Christmas spirit about it. He could be any bishop-saint. The Italians are missing a trick here. If they marketed their shrine as that of Father Christmas, it could rival Lapland.
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