The spirit of Christmas

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What does this bottle for holy water, from the Southern Italian port of Bari, have to do with Christmas?

Holy water flask depicting St Nicholas of Bari, late 19th to early 20th century, A660614 Science Museum

Holy water flask depicting St Nicholas of Bari, late 19th to early 20th century. Wellcome Library reference: A660614 Science Museum.

It is one of a series of Holy water flasks to be found in the original collections of Henry Wellcome (and soon to appear in the Reading Room at Wellcome Collection). The flask shows St Nicholas – a bearded figure wearing his Bishop’s vestment and holding a crozier. Traditionally, the vessels were designed for Barian families by local artists and depict, not only images of the saint, but also episodes from his life and the miracles he is said to have performed.

This bottle is clearly labelled “Nicola di Bari” – the place where his remains were moved to in 1087 by Italian merchants. His remains now lie allegedly in a tomb within the crypt of the basilica in Bari, and remain a sight of pilgrimage to this day. His original home was in Myra in Turkey.

The Charity of St Nicholas, oil painting, Spanish 18th century, Wellcome Library no. 44808i

The Charity of St Nicholas. Oil painting, attributed 18th century Spain. Wellcome Library reference: 44808i.

The ritual extraction of the ‘manna of Saint Nicholas’, an ‘oil’ or water that is said to exude from his remains continues today on 9 May every year. Bottles similar to these have been widely available in the area for centuries.The holy water is drunk or sprinkled on parts of the body by ailing pilgrims, although bottles of it are no longer available for sale.

The Saint’s miraculous powers have been revered since his death in 343 AD – and not just on 6 December, the day of his death and now his Feast day. The story of his worthy deeds as Bishop of Myra became so popular that it spread to the rest of Byzantium and the world beyond, making him a popular subject in Eastern Orthodox, as well as Catholic iconography.

 ca. 1900, EPH 62:3

Advert for Borwick’s Baking Powder showing Father Christmas, ca. 1900. Wellcome Library reference: EPH 62:3.

Over the centuries the myth of Saint Nicholas has gradually merged with the English folkloric figure of Father Christmas, who represents the spirit of good cheer at Christmas. As a wealthy and generous man, St Nicholas chose to give out secret gifts to those in need, making him a convenient figure to adopt for Christmas, especially as the celebration of his feast day began to decline in Western Europe from the 16th century.

Whether as St Nicholas, Father Christmas or Santa Claus, he continues to represent the spirit of good cheer, bringing peace, joy, generosity and revelry to these dark winter days.

Author: Julia Nurse is Content and Metadata Officer at the Wellcome Library.


St. Nicholas: His Legends and Iconography, E. G. Clare, 1984

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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