Irish Medieval History
The real Santa Claus is buried in Ireland! St. Nicholas of Myra was originally buried in his home town but knightly relic hunters removed the remains first to southern Italy and then on to Ireland where a church was built and dedicated to the saint at Newtown, Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny. (Now in ruins)*
Santa means saint and ultimately derives from the Latin word Sanctus. Claus is an abbreviation of Nicholas comes into English from French Nicolas, from Latin Nicholaus, Nicolaus, from Greek Nikholaos, literally “victory-people”, from Nike “victory” + laos “people”.
Born to wealthy parents Nicholas/Nikolaos was brought up in Myra, Lycia which is now Demre in modern-day Turkey but at that time was under Greek Christian influence. He later became bishop of Myra and that is as far as reliable history goes.
The legend goes that he was one of many bishops to answer the request of Constantine and appear at the First Council of Nicaea in 325AD and was said to be one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.
His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young and he was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas) who was the bishop of Patara. He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader and later ordained him a presbyter (priest).
Nicholas was revered for his extraordinary generosity leaving anonymous gifts and was made a saint shortly after his death.
One story tells of a poor peasant with three daughters, who could not afford the dowry for his three daughters and he was being forced to sell them into slavery. As he began to despair, on three separate nights as they came of age, bags of gold appeared in his home, seemingly tossed through a window or down the chimney as they slept, landing in shoes left by the fire. The story inspired the tradition of children leaving out their stockings to be filled by Santa Claus.
The veneration of saints was discouraged by protestant churches after the reformation and this led to him being renamed Father Christmas but St. Nicholas or the name Santa Claus proved almost impossible to kill off.
Philip Lynch, a historian and chairman of Callan Heritage Society in Co. Kilkenny, claims there is evidence to suggest that a French family who settled in Ireland shortly after 1169 were responsible for moving his remains. He believes that the crusading family, called the de Frainets, exhumed the tomb after they were routed by their enemies, and brought the content to southern Italy, which was then under Norman control.
When they were subsequently forced out of Italy by the Genoese, the remains were entrusted to relatives in Nice, who moved them to family lands in Kilkenny for safe keeping. Nicholas de Frainet built a dedicated church at Newtown where St Nicholas’s remains were then interred in 1200.
*Earlier we stated in error that the remains were at Cistercian Abbey at Jerpoint but the actual location is the Church of St. Nicholas a short distance away from the Cistercian Abbey.
Irish Medieval History
Syncretism: unlike the militant atheism of today, Christianity took a much more sympathetic view of previous religions and religious beliefs. Rather than destroy and expunge old religious practices completely they simply blended them with Christian beliefs. This phenomenon is given the term syncretism by academics.
In Ireland there are many holy wells which are the legacy of the previous Celtic religion which held that watery places were access points to the dwelling places of the Gods. In the English language today the names of the days of the week reflect its German heritage Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are all named in honour of Germanic/Norse gods. Saturday is named after the Roman God Saturn and Sunday & Monday the Sun and Moon days which are found across many cultures. In modern Irish, Monday Tuesday and Saturday, Dé Luan, Dé Mairt and Dé Sathairn follow the Roman tradition named respectively after Moon, Mars and Saturn.
The remaining days Dé Domhnaigh, Dé Céadaoin, Déardaoin and Dé hAoine are related to the Christian tradition and translate as follows, the day of the Lord (Sunday), day of the first fast (Wednesday), day between the two fasts (Thursday) and day of fasting (Friday).
Five months in English are named after pagan Roman gods January (Janus), March (Mars), May (Maia) and June (Juno).
In Irish the names for the months of May (Bealtaine), August (Lúnasa) and November (Samhain) are all names of big pagan festivals.
Christmas occurs near the Pagan celebration of the Winter solstice and traces of several pagan festivals can be found in Christmas including birthday of the God Mithra and the Roman festival of Saturnalia (Sun God) starting on the 17th December and ending on the 23rd with 'Dies Natali Solis Invictus', 'the birthday of the unconquered sun'. St. John’s Bonfire night occurs at the summer solstice and Easter occurs near the Passover celebration. The term Easter is peculiar to English as it refers to an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ēostre, a form of the widely attested Indo-European dawn goddess. Almost all neighbouring languages use a variant of Latin Pascha to name this holiday.
Syncretism has given us a window to see through to the past history of the religious practices of our ancestors which could not be viewed using other methods including archaeology, which would only allow us to take a guess.
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