Deep in Southern Italy, Bari is a quivering mirage in the early summer heat. It’s the 7th of May, a Tuesday evening. The bright blue fishing boats bob around in the harbour, abandoned. A white, wooden structure resembling a church stands in the main square of the old town. A scabby-kneed Napoleon Dynamite snogs his long haired, olive skinned girlfriend on a bench on the waterfront. There is a huge crowd of people lining the Lungomare Promenade; watching, waiting.
You hear it before you see it: the unmistakable, metallic whoosh of the Frecce Tricolori as they zoom past us at phenomenal speed, trailing multicoloured vapour in their wake.
Bari is stirring. The 7th, 8th and 9th of May marked the annual Festa Di San Nicola, otherwise known as St Nicholas Festival. That’s right, folks. There’s a lot of love going around for Santa Claus down here in Bari, and here’s why. Pay attention, here is the history part.
In 1087, a Byzantine Emperor fought a Turkish Sultan and lost. Amid the confusion of the battle’s aftermath, some sailors from Bari stole the saint’s skeleton from it’s resting place in Myra, Turkey, and took it back across the sea to Italy, where it now lies beneath a very aptly named Basilica. Ever since then, his tomb is visited daily by everybody from new born babies to crying nuns.
So, what makes Santa so awesome down here? Well, besides the whole Christmas thing (he and JC were best buds, you see) he performed various miracles, according to Italian legend and folklore. Rumour has it he brought three murdered boys back to life after a brush with a dreadful, cannibalistic butcher. He also had a killer tan.
Over the next three days, to celebrate the 926th anniversary of the arrival of his remains in Bari, all manner of fun was to be had. Air shows, parades, floats, feasts, parties, samba bands, fireworks, not to mention the numerous stalls I walked past this afternoon selling everything from inflatable Spongebobs and oven dishes to pick and mix and palm readings. Boats in the marina were strewn with flags and street vendors were armed with apocalyptic amounts of ice and drink coolers, all in the name of tipping one’s hat to good old Santa. People laughed and danced like their feet were on fire, everybody was going nuts for St Nick.
As the party raged outside, There I sat in the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola, making notes whilst a procession of crying elderly women were in turn kneeling on the tomb of St Nicholas. I watched as they each held small viles of cloudy liquid to their chests and kissed their hands as they crossed themselves. That’s when it hit me: here is something that people deem so sacred and worthy of praise, a true demonstration of their love and devotion not only to God but also to their patron. This was the religious side of the festival, the humble side. This wasn’t just a religious festival, this was a true demonstration of Italian patriotism and passion, and it brought this sleepy town to life.