As a young man during the mid-1960’s, I spent a considerable amount of time traveling throughout Turkey and Europe. Because owning and driving a car was out of the question for a 17 year old, most of my traveling was done by bus and train. During one particular summer, I was traveling south, trying to get to the beautiful and historical seaside town of Antalya. After hours on a rickety, smelly old bus with uncomfortable seats I arrived at a small town called Kale (now called Demre) on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. As was the practice then, the bus pulled into a depot for a two hour break and everyone got out to stretch their legs and get something to eat. As I walked down the center of this ancient town, I noticed a sign indicating that this place was once a Lycian town called Myra, the home of Saint Nicholas of Myra – the original Santa Claus! Known to Turkish Children as Papa Noel or Noel Baba in Turkish, I was at the birthplace of Santa Claus!
I wanted to find outmore about Santa Claus but the bus was getting ready to leave and I had to board. However, my curiosity did not end there and upon my return to Istanbul, I visited one of my history teachers who told me to go to the school library and check out everything under St. Nicholas. I was soon buried in books and secretly hoping that this was not a summer research assignment which would come back to haunt me as an exam in the fall. To my surprise, the subject matter was most interesting and has stayed with me all these years! With Christmas now upon us, I would like to share some of what I learned in that summer about this most beloved figure.
Myra, where St. Nicholas lived was one of the most important cities in antique Lycia. Coins have been found there dating back to 300 BC, but the city must have been founded centuries earlier. The city thrived as part of the Roman Empire and was home to many public buildings. Nicholas, however, was not born in Myra. He was actually born in the nearbyGreek town of Patara to very wealthy parents and raised as a devout Christian. Nicholas was very young when his parents died during an epidemic. Driven by his Christian beliefs, he used his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. He was made Bishop of Myra and became known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith. He was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas returned home and died on December 6, AD 343 in Myra. He was buried in his cathedral church. According to local legend a unique relic called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance which was said to have healing powers fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th (December 19 on the Julian calendar).
Over the years, many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas’ life and deeds and he was finally transformed into Santa Claus aswe know him today.
One of the most prominent of these stories tells of a poor man with three daughters. The custom of the time was for the father of young girls to offer a dowry, something of value to prospective husbands. Since the father was so poor and could not afford to pay a dowry, his daughters did not have a chance to get married. This meant that he may have to sell them into slavery. On three different occasions, a bag of gold mysteriously appeared in their home, providing the much-needed dowries. The bags of gold which were tossed through an open window were said to have landed in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry. This may have led to the custom of children hanging stockings by the fireplace or putting out shoes awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the same story was told with gold balls substituted for bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.
Nicholas’ tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Some Christians atthe time were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult due to its location. In the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy sailed to Asia Minor and succeeded in spiriting away St. Nicholas’ bones, bringing them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. They built an impressive church over St. Nicholas’ crypt and many faithful journeyed to honor the saint who was known for his compassion, generosity, and delivery of countless miracles. Nicholas became known as “Saint in Bari” and the shrine was one of medieval Europe’s great pilgrimage centers. To this day, pilgrims and tourists visit Bari’s great Basilica di San Nicola.
By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continued to be a model for the compassionate life. By the end of the 1400’s St. Nicholas was the third beloved religious figure, after Jesus and Mary. There were more than 2,000 chapels and monasteries named after him. Over the centuries, St Nicholas’ popularity grew, and many people in Europe made up new stories that showed his concern for children. The American version, Santa Claus,was derived from the Dutch Sinter Klass pronunciation of St Nicholas. Early Dutch settlers in New York (once called New Amsterdam) brought their traditions of St Nicholas. As children from other countries tried to pronounce Sinter Klass, this soon became Santa Klass, which finally ended up as Santa Claus. The old bishop’s cloak, jeweled gloves and crosier were soon replaced with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images.
Over the centuries, customs from different parts of the Northern Hemisphere thus came together and created the whole world’s Santa Claus – the ageless, timeless, white-bearded and red -suited man who gives out gifts on Christmas. He now lives in and always returns to a place called Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland.
Now, it is time for children of all ages to make their lists, be on their best behavior, go to bed early and wish for Santa to deliver their gifts on Christmas Eve. A wonderful tradition that started in Demre, Turkey many centuries ago still continues to excite all of us… young and old.
Currently a member of Marco Island’s Code Enfaorcement Board, Tarik Ayasun has given many years of community service to various organizations.