Friday, 6 December 2013

St. Nicholas in Bucharest

Saint Nicholas (Nicolae in Romanian) was a bishop in 4th century Anatolia who had a reputation for giving presents secretly. His cult spread across Europe with many charming legends attached. Today is his feast day and in Catholic and Orthodox countries children receive presents on St Nicholas's Eve, 5th December. 

Santa Claus is a Dutch phrase for the saint and the idea of Santa Claus was taken to North America. He now figures in the global post-Christian commercial hagiography along with St Valentine.

This summer Martin Harris, Mihai Ivanescu and I made a tour of Bucharest churches. The highlight was the church of Mihai Voda, one of the few Bucharest churches that I have visited fairly often. (It's a ten minute stroll from my flat.) 

A clever engineer, Eugen Iordachescu saved it and a number of others from destruction by Communist bulldozers and had it moved on rollers. It is now completely hidden behind apartment blocks. Thank God Eugen Iordachescu had the idea of the rollers and thereby saved a number of fine churches, at least until the next earthquake. Having no foundations they may fall to the ground like a deck of cards. 

But it was the highlight because Martin pointed out 'There is Santa Claus's hand!' and there indeed was St Nicholas's mummified hand. It is not in a very prominent place and I had previously not noticed it.

Is there a black market for stolen holy relics? If so, they should guard it carefully. Stealing holy relics sounds very mediaeval but so do lots of things that happen in this country, which, I suppose, is why I love this place.

Mihai, who once told me that he is not particularly religious, is quite certain that this is indeed St. Nicholas's hand and that someone tried to steal the relic from the church and died in prison on December 6, St. Nicholas's Day. 

I would like to believe that St Nicholas was involved in this death, and in fact can at a stretch, but I very much doubted if it really was the saint's hand and said I would look up how many of his hands are to be found in churches in Europe. 

Yet I was loath to do so. I decided to leave it that it is the saint's hand indeed. But, just as many towns claimed the honour of producing Homer, so relics of St Nicholas are widely distributed in Romania. In St. George's church, not far away, the saint's right hand is preserved in a glass case.


  1. This is the feast day of St Nicholas, a pastor (bishop, to be particular) known for his love of the young and children and who attended the Council of Nicaea. It is also worth recalling that the region he pastored (in S. Turkey) is almost entirely Muslim today. That last point is especially worth the consideration of people in Western Europe.

  2. That is a very nice church, visited a few times.