Kids Corner

Image: from sketch of Santa by Dalbir Singh


The Real Santa Claus






You’ve wondered, haven’t you, for as long as you can remember, what in the world Turkey has to do with Christmas? So have I.

Even devout Christians don’t know the correct answer.

Well, guess what? I found the answer during a trip to … yes, Turkey!

In a little town named Myra, on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, we came across the ruins of an old church.

The Basilica of St. Nicholas.

The man it honours is known locally as Noel Baba. (Not “Baba Noel", corrected Ali, our guide; switching it around would make him a Godfather. “Like Marlon Brando”, Ali roared with laughter.)

Noel Baba is the one who you and I, and the children, call Santa Claus.

Nicholas was born in the ancient port of Patara, a few kilometers west of Myra, in the 4th century AD. Though hailing from a rich family, he turned to religion and public service as his vocation of choice.

He studied theology in the monastery at Xanthos, about 20 km north of Patara, and subsequently became Bishop of Myra.

Myra is the home of a cliff-face of magnificently carved rock tombs which tower over the village, dating to the 2nd Century BC when the area boasted a remarkably sophisticated civilization: the Lycians.

When you drive down the Taurus mountains, a curious landscape greets you. On the left is the blue and silver of the shimmering Mediterranean. On the right is a sprawl of shining white, mile after mile, stretching to the horizon. No, it isn’t snow or ice. No, we are nowhere close to the legendary North Pole of Santa Claus fame.

The area could easily be labelled the greenhouse capital of the world. The plastic covered greenhouses supply the export market with exotic vegetables, plants, fruits ad flowers.

Myra and the twin village of Demre flourish today as a result of this industry, and partly because of the tourists who arrive in bus-loads to see the Lycian tombs and amphitheatre. It is mostly by chance that the tourists discover the existence of the church of St Nicholas and the fact that he was buried there when he died on December 6, 343 AD.

He had already acquired quite a reputation while he was alive. It began, the legend goes, when it became known -- a passer-by spotted him one day -- that he would secretly drop bags of money down the chimney of a neighbour who had three daughters but could not marry them away because he was too poor to afford their dowries.

It didn’t take long for Nicholas to be considered the protector of children and the poor -- as well as of sailors and merchants!

Another legend describes how Nicholas pleaded, during a famine, with the captain of a wheat-laden ship in the Myra harbour to donate some of the grain to the starving citizens of the town. The captain, afraid of the wrath of the emperor in Alexandria where the cargo was destined, refused at first. However, he finally gave in when Nicholas convinced him that no harm would come to him as a result of his charity. The donation of the grain left behind fed Myrans for two successive bad years and helped stave off starvation.

When the ship arrived in Alexandria, so goes the legend, and the holds were opened, the compartments were found to be full to the brim with wheat. None was missing.

Word of Nicholas’ miracle spread far and wide, and quickly spilled into Europe, where he was declared the patron saint of many coastal cities when he was canonized upon his death.

A church was built around his tomb in Myra in the 6th century. In 1043, the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine IX, and Empress Zoe ordered the then ruined church to be rebuilt. A few decades later, merchants from Bari, Italy, raided the tomb and stole Nicholas’ remains, and erected the Church of San Nicola di Bari in Italy to house them. In their haste, however, they left behind a few bones in Myra -- which are now displayed in the Museum in Antalya, the capital of the region in southern Turkey.

In 1750, the church in Myra was repaired and embellished by the Russians and the Czarina who held Nicholas in great esteem.

Today, the church stands in ruins.

The Turkish authorities are making a brave attempt to save what’s left of the structure: elaborate scaffolding has been constructed around the complex, and a roof erected over it all to protect it somewhat from the elements. Nevertheless, it is visibly deteriorating.

Only a few fragments of the original mosaic floors, for example, are left. Only a few frescoes remain visible.

There's one of the twelve apostles with the colours barely discernible in the dome in the north-eastern corner. It doesn’t have more than a few seasons before it will be lost forever. Nicholas’ sarcophagus, still evidencing how it was broken into and the remains stolen, sits in a dilapidated state.

In the meantime, the world pretends that the legend  of Santa Claus stems, not from the ancient son of the land we know today as Turkey, but a European specimen who resides at the North Pole. And while families eagerly await gifts from him right on cue every December, the church built in his memory and honour continues to crumble to the vagaries of time and human neglect, and is well on its way to oblivion.

*   *   *   *   *

When I first wrote about this several years ago, the story was picked up worldwide and received considerable attention. And then, all hell broke loose.

“Letters to the Editor” from Greeks everywhere expressed great distress in reading St Nicholas described as a Turk and came up with convoluted and innovative arguments to claim him as a Greek. One of them was that part of the land was then under Greek dominance.

First of all, not true! Alexander did march through the region, on his way to ultimate defeat in a faraway land called Punjab, but didn’t hold sway here in Antalya and vicinity for long. There are others who argue that Alexander wasn't Greek, so ...

Also, people are quick to claim ownership of Santa Claus, having already usurped him as a European character -- which he certainly was not -- but balk at the notion that Jesus was, on the basis of similar logic, a Palestenian!

But wait till I tell them a couple of more facts from their own lore: that Nicholas wore a turban all his life, as did Jesus and Peter … and Moses before him!               

Republished on December 23, 2015 

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