Is there anything more appropriate to write about, here 25. December , than Santa Claus? No right? Even though he has many names (perhaps it is from here that the expression “dear child has many names” comes from?). It is certainly obvious, because with names such as Saint Nicolaus, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Nikolaos of Myra and many, many more can be confusing. But all cover the same man – the one we now call Santa Claus.
It is admittedly not the plump, white-bearded old man wearing red clothes with white fur edges and thick black leather belt, that I think of. He first came with the Coca Cola commercials in the 1930s. The real St. Nicholas was a rather ascetic man, who was known to locals for his good heart and many miracles.
But did you know that Santa Claus is from Turkey ?? No right? The first time my husband Dennis told me about it, I thought, that it was the perfect image of the Turks megalomania and “I-can-all” attitude and really fitted into the hyper-commercial image, several Turkish “tourist-cities” then had. So why not Santa Claus ?? I opened Gyldendals lexicon (Google wasn’t invented then) and it alleged, that St. Nicholas was from Turkey !!!!!!! It changed my entire world perspective, because I had always learned, that he was from Greenland or North Pole if nothing else (although Norwegians say, he is from Norway and Finns, that he is from Lapland). Where was the snow, reindeer, sleigh, Christmas tree and Christmas gifts ?? It wasn’t much better to visit his church in Demre – there wasn’t any Christmas. But I was still a little curious – who was he, this Sankt Nicolaus ??
Who was Saint Nicolaus?
Saint Nikolaos of Myra was a Greek bishop, who lived in Myra (now Demre) in Turkey in the 4th century. At the time, this part of Turkey belonged to Lycia – a Greek part of the Catholic Roman Empire, but were later taken over by the Turks. He was born in Patara d. March 15 270 AD of wealthy parents. When they died early, he grew up with his uncle, who was Bishop of Myra. He was from an early age very religious and went out later on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He lived in a cave for 3 years – where St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is today. He returned to Turkey in 317 and became shortly after the Bishop of Myra.
He was known as a generous and kind-hearted man, who gave gifts, nuts and fruit to the children, helped the local population in need and performed several miracles. He helped among other things, a poor man with his three daughters. At that time, one was considered a prostitute, unless you were married. But the man could not afford dowries for the daughters. The tradition says, that the bishop threw three purses of gold coins into the father – the first 2 through the window. And when there was danger of being discovered, the last purse was thrown down the chimney and landed in the stockings, that were to dry over the fire.
Saint Nicolas allegedly awakened three children from dead, and later a sailor during his pilgrimage. During his journey to the Holy Land, he sailed with an Egyptian ship. One night he dreamed of a violent storm, but that God would protect them. He told the captain about this, when he woke up. Immediately the storm broke out. A sailor then fell off the mast and died, but woke up again, when the bishop touched him, and they all came safely into harbour. Since then, he was regarded as protector of the seafarers.
St. Nicholas himself died in Demre d. 6 December 343 AD and was buried in the church. This day, has since been known as Saint Nicholas day, and is some places celebrated with gifts for the children and coins in the shoes standing outside at the door. Throughout the Middle Ages nuns puts curves with shoes and clothing at the door to the needy. In the 1200s the kids got a special Nikolaus-coin with year and image every year 6. Dec. This was later changed to “real money”, sweets and small gifts, and given as prizes diligence in school for well-behaved, studious children. The naughty ones got rice instead (at my home it has become a potato. I got it from time to time as a child, and my children have also tried it once or twice).
Several years after his death, Saint Nicholas was named a saint by the Catholic Church. He is therefore regarded as the patron saint of Russia, Greece and Sicily and protects, children, sailors, fishermen, bakers, pharmacists and lawyers. He is always portrayed with a halo around his head, 3 small purses or golden apples in his hand, a cloak with a cross on and often with ships and children in the background.
Can you see Santa today ??
In the spring of 1087, most of St. Nikolaus bones was taken by Italian sailors and shipped to the Italian city of Bari. Whether it was a revelation or a real concern about the threat of a nearby Muslim invasion and access to the Holy tomb, is undecided. There was certainly also a commercial purpose to move a saint’s tomb. The rest of the bones of the original tomb was collected during the first Crusade and taken to Venice, where they are still exhibited. Only a few bones still exists in Turkey at the Archaeological Museum of Antalya.
It is said, that the bones secrete a white liquid called Manna, which has healing powers. The liquid is collected annually, d. 6 December, from the grave in the cathedral of Bari and are sold in small bottles. It is not known, whether it is actually the bones, which secrete liquid, or whether it comes from the marble (the church is slightly below sea level, so the theory is, that it probably is seawater sucked up by the stones).
You can visit the official Saint Nicholas church in Demre. It is so delicate (and with the most beautiful mosaic floors and beautiful frescoes on the walls). The church is considered the third most important example of Byzantine architecture and is really beautiful and very solemn, to step into. The present church was built on top of the original church in the year 520, but the real archaeological excavation started in 1988. It is still possible to see the sarcophagus, where St Nicholas lays.
.It takes about 2 ½ hours to drive to Demre from Antalya, but it is a trip worth (possibly combined with an overnight stay at the beautiful coastal stretch). Perhaps one of the summer’s projects with our two children?
One might debate, whether it all gets a little too commercial, or if it’s just cozy with Santa and all the gifts. At some point you get some explaining to do to your children, if you have to tell them, that Santa does not exist. That means, that what they believed in their entire childhood, is not right (and you told them some kind of lie). Why not tell them about St. Nicholas and his generosity and good deeds. At least it was all more or less true stories, which later led to the legend of the Santa Claus we know today.