Today, Saint Nicholas Day, children across Europe who have been on their best behavior during the year are rewarded with chocolates, coins, and oranges from the saint in their shoes and stockings, or under their pillows. Chances are they envisioned their secret gift-giver as a “jolly old elf” wearing a red suit with “merry dimples” and “a nose like a cherry,” as immortalized in the famous Clement Clark Moore poem. This familiar image of a rotund man with a flowing white beard evolved from legendary stories of the saint, who served as Bishop of Myra, once an ancient Greek town (now Demre in Turkey), in the fourth century.
More fiery than cheery, and more wiry than round, St. Nicholas was born into a wealthy family and endowed with a generous spirit. Legend has it that when he learned that the parents of three marriageable daughters couldn’t afford their dowries, he threw bags of gold coins into their window, which landed in three stockings hung by the fireplace. Hence, the tradition of Santa coming down the chimney bearing presents was born. In addition to being the patron saint of children, St. Nicholas also watches over sailors, archers, prostitutes, students, and merchants.
Years ago, I traveled to Demre via gulet boat from Antalya along Turkey’s breathtaking Turquoise Coast. The mercury was hovering at 40°C (about 100°F), and my companions and I were sweltering in our bathing suits. When the captain announced that we were stopping in Demre, home of the “original Santa Claus,” I was intrigued. Santa, here? I wondered. It was difficult to reconcile my childhood vision of “St. Nick” with the arid landscape, sparkling sea, and rock-carved tombs surrounding us.
After docking, we walked uphill toward our destination: St. Nicholas Church, built over the saint’s original burial place. His sarcophagus had been vandalized seven hundred years after his death, and his remains were supposedly taken to Italy, leaving the tomb empty. The church was rebuilt in 520 A.D. and later restored due to flooding.
Although abandoned in 1923 and no longer fully intact, the church was once a vibrant place of worship, as evidenced by the abundance of faded, yet stunning, frescoes. Scenes of Jesus with the Twelve Apostles, his Crucifixion, and the miracles of St. Nicholas are depicted in rich tones in a Byzantine style. My fellow tourists and I trod over ancient mosaic tile floors where the Bishop had once presided. With each step, I gained a newfound fondness and respect for the mysterious Christmas gift deliverer.
When I moved to Finland a few years after visiting Demre, I learned from the locals that their version of Santa, Joulupukki (“Yule Goat”), hailed from Rovaniemi in Lapland. Of course, this makes perfect sense to them, as there are more reindeer than residents in Northern Finland, making Joulupukki’s job much easier come Christmas Eve. I also learned that he receives half a million letters each year from children around the world, keeping the postal elves very busy.
The Santa Claus Village website states that Santa’s mission is: “to enhance the well-being of children and the kindness of grown-ups, as well as spread the message of love and goodwill and the Christmas Spirit across the globe.” Whether one imagines Joulupukki, Santa Claus, or St. Nick this Christmas season, we can rest assured that the spirit of St. Nicholas of Demre lives on.