It is that time of the year again, Christmas is around the corner. We already have three inches of snow on the ground. The homes in our neighborhood are decorated with colorful lights, Christmas trees are put up, the malls are crowded with shoppers, and the children already started the countdown for Christmas morning. They think that the old man with the white beard and red clothes has already left the North Pole and coming to their neighborhood on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. On Christmas Eve the children will leave a glass of milk, maybe some cookies by the fireplace where the stockings are hung, as a gesture to Santa.
But what is the story behind Santa Claus. Does he really live in North Pole? Why does he bring presents to children? Few people know where the original Santa Claus lived and the story behind his legend.
This summer I was in Turkey with my wife and visited the town called Myra (or Demre inTurkish) and visited Santa's Church where he once lived. Yes, you did not hear wrong: Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas was born in the third century, in Patara, a beach by the Beydagi Mountains rising near the Mediterranean sea in Anatolia. This city was only 60 km west of Myra where Santa Claus once lived his life and eventually died.
Saint Nicholas was born to a wealthy family and always had in his roots to help the needy. On Christmas Eve every year people and especially the ones with little children found golden apples, little toys, snacks at their doorsteps. Nobody knew who had left these presents. One Christmas Eve the town people caught a man wandering around the homes with a huge sack on his back. The man had a red suit on him and big black boots. They asked the man with the white beard, what he was doing and to reveal his identity. He was Saint Nicholas of Myra and was leaving presents for the Children since it was Jesus' birthday.
Earlier, sailors of a ship traveling to Jerusalem, believed that Saint Nicholas saved them from a huge storm with his prayers. When they came back to Myra the people told them that their bishop had died and they were going to select the first person entering the church as their bishop. Since Saint Nicholas was the first such person he was elected as the bishop of Myra. From then on Saint Nicholas was always the Saint of Sailors and the town of Myra. People always attributed miracles to him, such as saving them from famine, saving sailors from storms, helping the needy, especially young people and children.
According to one such story; whenever wheat was scarce in town, Saint Nicholas borrowed wheat from visiting ships and saved Myra from famine. Another story related to the Christmas tradition is the tale of three Sisters.
During those times, girls could not get married unless they had a dowry. There was a poor family in Myra with three beautiful sisters who had not enough money for the dowry. The oldest sister had an idea: she would sell herself as a slave and use the money to get the other two sisters married. Of course, the other two sisters objected. Before reaching an agreement they got tired and fell asleep. It was Christmas Eve and Saint Nicholas had overheard their conversation from the open window. The next mornings when the girls woke up, they found a bag full of gold by the window. This was enough money for the first sister to get married. To their surprise the next year they found another bag of gold by the window on Christmas morning. So the second sister got married. On the third year, Christmas Eve was a very cold night, so the unmarried sister closed all windows. She washed her stockings and hung them by the fireplace to dry and went to sleep. Saint Nicholas, seeing that the windows were closed, decided to climb to the roof and threw the bag of gold from the chimney. The gold went through the chimney and right into the older sister's stockings. So, she got married.
During all these years Saint Nicholas was able to hide his identity and secretly help the poor, the needy the young and the children. Finally one Christmas Eve his secret was revealed by the night guard of Myra. He caught the man with the red suit and a sack full of gold, toys, snacks and apples. When the people of Myra learned that the man with the presents was Saint Nicholas, they decided to call him Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
The Fatherhood of Saint Nicholas was soon accepted by other Christian Countries and spread outside the borders of Byzantium. Churches were built in his name in Italy, Scandinavian countries and finally in Russia. One such church was built in Istanbul in the sixth century by the Roman Emperor Justinian I.*The real transformation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus first started in Germany with the emergence of the Protestant churches and then spread to France.
Below are few pictures, I took during my visit to the Saint Nicholas Church in Myra. Enjoy them.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
If you ever go to Myra in December, you will notice that although the weather is generally mild by the beautiful Mediterranean, you will see that tips of the Taurus Mountains behind, have layers of snow on them. The locals will say that when the weather gets real cold towards end of December, the deer will come down to town.
December 15, 2003
* St. Nicholas Church Myra, Kekova& Kas from Demre to Kalkan by Huseyin Cimrin, Guney Kartpostal&Yayincilik, Page 10,