Just a pleasure visiting the wayback, remembering my daughter’s first far-flung travel. And a chance to reprise it for Christmas and New Years wishes from the original Santa Claus. Many lay claim to the origins of the Santa legend, but St. Nicholas, of the ancient city of Myra in Turkey, is the real deal. Trace them back, most other countries’ Santa legends are spinoffs.
When daughter Katie (aka Kat), was eight she lucked into being the US representative when Turkey brought in kids from a number of nations at XMAS to explore the origins of Santa Claus. I lucked into being her sidekick. Festive understates the enthusiasm of a bakers dozen of mostly Muslim Santa Claus stand-ins. They joyfully guided the kids about the Mediterranean city Antalya and throughout ancient ruins on the way to the church of St. Nicholas in Myra, about 142 km away, south and west along the coast. Hip-hopping Santa Clauses, conga line Santa Clauses, break dancing Santa Clauses. These Santas had great moves.
The celebration of St. Nicholas is actually on December 6th, the day of his death in 343.
Myra endured through cascading empires — Lycian, ancient Greek, Roman Greek, Byzantine Greek and Ottoman Greek, with many overlapping influences from Hittite to Persian to Egyptian. The Greeks departed in 1923, in the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The local ruins are impressive, though much of what would be great to still have about didn’t outlast Santa Claus’s distaste for pagan reminders, alas.
Christmas Service at the ancient church of St. Nicholas
Santas bring a softer edge to the marble heroes in the Antalya Archeological Museum
Santas summoning the children of the countries they’re assigned to show around Antalya
Ancient church of St. Nicholas
So you think you can dance?
Turkish children entertaining their guests
Antalya Archeological Museum
Santas warming up
they waited in the wings for glory or their demise.
Santas gone wild, dancers celebrating after their performance with less traditional steps
Ancient Greek theater in Myra
Katie summons a dolphin
Ancient Greek Theater of Myra
Symbolizing theater masks in the Ancient Greek Theater of Myra
Plundered ancient rock cut tombs of the Lycian necropolis, Myra, Turkey
Antalya Archeological Museum, 75,000 square feet of wonder
Sunset on the Taurus Mountains bordering Antalya, named for the bull that symbolized ancient
Near Eastern storm gods, who flooded rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates to fertilize land.
What he lacked in historical preservation, St. Nicholas made up for with a charitable heart. Losing his parents to a plague that wiped out a large swath of the population, he acquired a great inheritance. He joined the church and used his fortune to serve the poor and sick, becoming the bishop for Myra. One famous legend is that he knew a man on hard times was so in debt he might have to sell his three daughters into prostitution. One night Nicholas threw a sock filled with gold coins through the older daughter’s window, allowing the man to pay his debt.
Under one emperor, Diocletian, who was notorious for persecuting and killing Christians, he spent time in prison. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of those unjustly imprisoned, as well as of Greece, Russia, sailors, merchants, and scholars.
St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of prostitutes and of travelers.
No word on traveling salesmen, but I bet they’re covered.
When we were at the church in Myra/Demre for the service honoring St. Nicholas, it was thought that his bones had long ago departed for Italy. But right beneath where we were turns out to be his intact tomb.
It’s been sixteen or so years since Katie searched for Santa in Turkey. After serving in Americorps, she’s in a masters program in social work at Catholic U. Perhaps St. Nicholas gave her a nudge.
In any case, that stretch of Turkey’s southern coast is a grand place to spend the Christmas season, or muse about.
Jolly Merry, toward a more fortunate year!