Santa Claus—jolly old Saint Nicholas himself—was based off a Greek bishop, born in the 4th century CE, who gave his riches to the poor. For his deeds, the original gift-giving Saint Nick was canonized after his martyr's death.
Nicholas was revered throughout Europe long before his 19th-century repurposing as Santa Claus. He was the patron saint of sailors, adopted by many an Italian naval empire. So when his remains and original resting place in Myra (modern Turkey) were conquered by the ever-expanding Ottoman Turk empire in the 11th century, some Italian sailors decided to “rescue” the saint’s relics. They took them back to the Basilica di San Nicola, in Bari, Southern Puglia, where they’ve been kept in a golden tomb since 1087. Though most of St. Nicholas’s bones were brought to Bari on that expedition to Asia Minor, approximately 500 smaller chips and fragments were taken from Myra to the Lido island of Venice on a later expedition in 1100.
Over the centuries, relic fragments of what are said to be St. Nick’s bones have been acquired by an impressive number of churches around the world. The relics industry was big business in medieval Europe, when having a saint’s remains in your church would attract pilgrim visitors paying to stay in your town. With that in mind, these are just some of the places where you can visit the (likely genuine—more on that later) relics of St. Nick.
1. Basilica di San Nicola // Bari, Italy
The Basilica di San Nicolais is the most famous destination for pilgrims to pay homage to St. Nick. His bones, housed in the tomb in the crypt, are believed to exude myrrh (an incense like matter burned in places of worship to purify the air), which is collected in a flask by the clergy of the basilica on St. Nicholas’s Day, December 6.
2. Chiesa di San Nicoló, Lido // Venice, Italy
Not to be outdone by the Puglian sailors of Bari, Venice sent a search party to Myra in 1100 to commandeer St. Nick’s bones. They took what was left in his tomb—the smaller bones missed during the initial raid—and brought them back to Venice. Over 500 of these smaller fragments of bone are preserved in Chiesa di San Nicoló.
3. Palais des Beaux Arts // Lille, France
Deep in the collection of this huge art museum in Lille, France, sits a small piece of ornate 13th-century silverware like no other. The case, in all its faded filigree glory, contains one of St. Nicholas’s teeth. The case and relic were formerly housed in a small Catholic church in Lille. After Napoleon began opening museums to house artifacts that had been seized from churches during the French Revolution, the relic was moved to the Palais des Beaux Arts.
4. Basilique Saint-Nicolas // Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, Lorraine, France
One of St. Nicholas’s fingers was brought to Lorraine from Bari in 1090, not long after the original 1087 “rescue” operation. You’ll find it cased in a silver finger-shaped monument that sits in the middle of the altar within this medieval Gothic basilica.
5. Dom St. Stephanus und St. Sixtus // Halberstadt, Germany
The Cathedral of St. Stephanus and St. Sixtus in Halberstadt, completed in the 1430s, is one of Germany’s finest examples of Gothic architecture. The treasures it holds are just as impressive as the building itself. Many of the items and relics were brought back by religious crusaders in medieval times. One of the stars of the cathedral treasury is a remarkably crafted silver hand containing another finger of St. Nicholas, originally housed in St. Sophia in Constantinople.
6. Church of New Saint George (Sf Gheorghe Nou) // Bucharest, Romania
This 16th-century church in downtown Bucharest is one of the oldest in the city—and another site of St Nick’s remains (in Romania, he's known as Holy Hierarch Nicolae, Archbishop of the Bridegrooms of Lycia). The church was the lucky recipient of St. Nicholas’s right hand, as it was given to Romanian Prince Michael the Brave by the Archbishop of Bari in 1599. The holy relics are placed on the right side of the nave of the church, in a canopy made from solid oak.
7. Shrine of All Saints, St. Martha of Bethany Church // Illinois, United States
The Shrine of All Saints, designated in 2015, contains the relics of more than 2000 saints. It’s the second-largest collection of its kind in the U.S. In 2017, the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College Advanced Studies Centre, led by Professor Tom Higham and Dr Georges Kazan, studied a fragment of Saint Nick's pelvic bone held at the Shrine of All Saints. The researchers found that the bone fragment relic did indeed date back to the 4th century CE—St. Nicholas’s lifetime.
As Kazan said, “These results encourage us to turn to the Bari and Venice relics to attempt to show that the bone remains are from the same individual. We can do this using ancient palaeogenomics, or DNA testing. It is exciting to think that these relics, which date from such an ancient time, could in fact be genuine.”