St Nicholas, depicted as a typical orthodox saint, outside the cathedral at Demre

It’s that time of year again: Christmas trees, presents, family gatherings, carols, candles, tinsel and snow (theoretically at least) are in season, as is the near-omnipresent image of a jolly white-bearded Father Christmas or “Santa”.

In recent weeks, certain tour operators, especially in Britain, have been offering short trips to visit that character at his home, in snowy Lapland, i.e. the parts Sweden and Finland inhabited by the Sami people (formerly known as Lapps, a term now considered offensive).

Sweden and Finland? Poor Santa – he must wonder how he ended up so far from his original neighbourhood. His real home is, unequivocally, over 3,000 km (or 2,000 miles) to the south-east, at ancient Myra, in Asia Minor.

It is here that the real person behind the modern Santa Claus figure lived and worked: St. Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop and major Early Christian saint. Probably born at the nearby harbour town of Patara, he appears to have lived from about 270 to 340 AD. While virtually nothing is truly known about the real Nicholas, or Nikolaos, a series of legends are associated with his saintly life.

A rather surprising modern statue of the saint dominates the main road of Demre today (image from wikimedia commons)…

He was believed to have performed two miracles during his lifetime: First, he reassembled three children or youths who had been turned into meat pies by a greedy butcher and proceeded to bring them back to life. Secondly, during a famine, he convinced a group sailors to donate part of their cargo of grain – meant for the emperor – to his starving flock. When their ship reached Constantinople, the missing amount had somehow been replenished. The two stories mark him as a generous man, caring for the poor and for the young.

But the most famous tale associated with Nicholas, and the most significant for his later persona, is not even a miracle. A member of his congregation had fallen upon hard times and found himself unable to afford dowries for his three daughters. The only solution the wretched man could see was to send them off to pursue a highly disreputable profession to supplement the family income.  When the saintly bishop heard of this, realising that he ought to avoid hurting the poor man’s pride, he came up with an unusual ploy: he climbed upon the man’s roof at night and discretely tossed a bag of golden coins down the chimney – in some versions it landed in the girls’ stockings, hung up to dry.

In subsequent  centuries, St. Nicholas became major saint, initially in eastern Christianity, where he still is the main patron of sailors and hundreds of churches bear his name. Much later, his fame spread in the west, where he gradually took on a new role, as protector and benefactor of children. In various European traditions, he became associated with Christmas traditions and gift-giving. Eventually, through his Dutch form, Sinterklaas, and via the US and a well-known soft drinks manufacturer, he was turned into the now familiar image of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, moved to the Arctic Circle,  developed an unlikely connection with reindeer, and in some views even acquired a wife. What a strange fate for the holy man from Myra.

So, the traveller eager to connect with St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas should not just look at the wintry north. Ancient Myra is modern Demre, a provincial town in Lycia in modern Turkey. Amongst its many fascinating archaeological treasures is the 7th century (?) Byzantine church of Agios Nikolaos, built over the supposed location of  the saint’s grave (his remains were taken to Bari in Italy during the Middle Ages). And nearby Patara, the saint’s birthplace, located right by the azure waters of the Mediterranean, is one of the most spectacular ancient sites in the area.

If you feel you owe Nicholas a return visit, we are happy to show you around Myra/Demre on our cruises and walking tours in Lycia.

In any case, let us wish you a lovely and pleasant Christmas 2011!

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