Turks celebrate Father Christmas as local hero

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Media captionPortrait of Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, created by Liverpool's John Moores University Face Lab in December 2014

It's almost 6,000km (3,730 miles) from the North Pole and there's not an elf in sight.

But trace the roots of the sleigh-riding chap in red and you will arrive in the southern Turkish town of Demre. This was the home of the man whose legend inspired Father Christmas.

The story begins in the 4th Century, when Demre was called Myra and the region Lycia.

Ancient ruins testify to the town's importance: a beautiful Roman amphitheatre and rock-cut tombs built into the mountain remain, the burial place of the wealthy residents.

Purses of gold

Image caption Father Amvrosios Chorozidis holds the one tiny relic of St Nicholas that remains in Demre
Image caption The Santa legend is especially poignant at St Nicholas' Church in Demre
Image caption Turkey does not officially celebrate Christmas but in Demre "Noel Baba" is still embraced as a local hero

Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, was a much-loved figure.

Born to wealthy parents, he was known for his good deeds, immortalised in legends told for generations.

In one, he is said to have visited a butcher who had murdered and pickled three boys to sell them as ham. Nicholas miraculously brought them back to life.

In another - the most famous - he heard of a poor merchant who could not afford a dowry for his daughters and feared they would be sold into slavery.

Nicholas arrived at night, throwing purses of gold into the house. Told and retold, one version has the windows barred, forcing Nicholas to hurl the coins down the chimney, landing - yes, you guessed it - in the girl's stockings hung up to dry.


He was canonised soon after his death, and the St Nicholas Church now lies in the centre of Demre. Pilgrims come every year from across the world to venerate him during a packed December service.

Image caption Around the St Nicholas Church businesses have cashed in by selling Santa knick-knacks
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption What began in Demre has now spread throughout the world

"In the West, we seem to have everything, but in fact we have a lack of love in our hearts, so we need someone to visit us even once a year, to give us that love," says Father Amvrosios Chorozidis, who leads the liturgy.

"It makes me happy that the person I love, St Nicholas, was born here - and that the whole world waits for something from him each year."

Stories of Nicholas's kindliness spread after his death. So loved was he that his bones were stolen from his tomb here in 1087 and removed to Italy, for fear they would be overrun by the invading Turks.

He became the patron saint of children and sailors, as well as of various countries, including Russia and Greece.

But the transformation of his image from humble bishop to magical man in red took some time. European settlers, notably the Dutch, took his legend with them as they arrived in the New World.

The Vikings even dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland. For centuries the stories spread.

"Then in the New York of the 1800s, they were looking for ways to create nostalgic traditions and they turned to Nicholas as a way of establishing a connection with culture," says Prof Adam English of Campbell University in North Carolina, author of The Saint who would be Santa.

"And they reintroduced him no longer as a Christian bishop but as an elf of sorts, something mischievous. Then with the famous poem The Night Before Christmas and the illustrations of cartoonists, we have the image of Santa Claus."

Coca-Cola began using the image of the jovial Santa in its advertising from the 1930s, entrenching his appearance in popular culture.

Around the St Nicholas Church in Demre, businesses have cashed in on the fame, selling icons of the saint but also plenty of Santa knick-knacks.

In 2005, the town's mayor replaced a bronze statue of St Nicholas with a Disney-like plastic cast of Santa. After protests, the original was put back and Santa moved across the road. There are differing views of the man who should be immortalised here.

Not forgotten

"This is the real mystical thing, not what's been commercialised," says Evie, an Austrian who attends the yearly St Nicholas service with her Greek husband.

Image caption Ancient rock tomb ruins can be seen throughout Demre - which used to be known as Myra
Image caption A beautiful Roman amphitheatre can still be seen in Demre

"It's important to remember the original, true story."

A worshipper from Cyprus, welling up with tears, tells me her name is Nikki. "And so he's my saint. I'm proud of that. He helped a lot of people - and he still helps me every day."

And yet, compared to his later incarnation, the story of Nicholas of Myra is known by so few. Prof English tells me it's important that the origins are not forgotten.

"I'm not against the figure of Santa Claus but for many people, he's become a sort of vapid, hollow character," he says, "and they're interested in finding someone with meat on it, with roots and tradition.

"Rediscovering historical Nicholas is a way to check the over-commercialisation. He advocated justice and stood up for his fellow citizens. Lots of stories are missing if we simply focus on him as a gift-giver."

The journey from humble Byzantine bishop to the portly figure not averse to a tipple at the bottom of a chimney has been a long one.

Turkey does not officially celebrate Christmas but here in Demre "Noel Baba" is still embraced as their own famous son.

And so, as stockings are hung up tonight and a glass of sherry left out, spare a thought for the man whose story inspired it all. Let's hope the reindeer have scheduled in an extra special stop in Demre.

Saint Nicholas

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Born in 270AD in the then-Greek town of Patara, he travelled to Palestine and Egypt, before returning to become bishop of Myra
  • Imprisoned during the reign of Roman emperor Diocletian, but later released by his successor Constantine
  • After his death in 343AD, his burial site by his church in Myra became a shrine
  • Sailors stole his remains in 1087 and took them to Bari in Italy, where they remain enshrined

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

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