FROM SAINT NICHOLAS TO SANTA CLAUS Ask any child in U.K. about Santa Claus, they will tell you that Santa flies through the air on a sled pulled by a flying reindeer and then will explain how Santa enters the house though chimney, leaves gifts under the Christmas tree and then eats the cookies they have left for him. While...


Ask any child in U.K. about Santa Claus, they will tell you that Santa flies through the air on a sled pulled by a flying reindeer and then will explain how Santa enters the house though chimney, leaves gifts under the Christmas tree and then eats the cookies they have left for him. While this scenario may seem fantastic (with visiting all kids around the world part added in late 1800’s and Rudolph the reindeer in 1939), the stories about the actual Saint Nicholas – the original Santa Claus – are perhaps even more incredible.Saint Nicholas, one of the earliest Christian saints, was again honoured this year in Demre on 6th of December. We prepared a blog post for you about the origins of Santa Claus and hope you will enjoy reading!We invite you to join us at the Papillon Belvil and Papillon Ayscha Hotels for a safe winter holiday in Antalya, the birthplace of Santa Claus. At the Papillon Belvil and Papillon Ayscha Hotels, high-level safety measures are in place and special services are provided for long stays. Visit our Safe Winter Holiday page for all the details. 

Nikolai of Demre through the Ages

The character known as Santa Claus was once the bishop of Myra – now modern-day Demre – a Turkish city on the Mediterranean coast. Once a part of the Lycian Federation, Demre features many characteristics of Lycian culture like rock-cut tombs on the hills. Nikolai (Nicholas) of Demre later evolved into Sinterklaas in Northern Europe and then to Santa Claus in North America through myths brought across the Atlantic Ocean by European immigrants. Saint Nicholas of Myra was born in the fourth century – a turbulent time in the Roman Empire –  in Patara, an important Lycian port (see our blog post: 2020 – The Year of Patara in Turkey) The son of a wealthy merchant, Nicholas was educated in Xanthos and was raised by his uncle after the death of his family. Despite the attempted suppression of Christianity by the Romans, the young man entered the priesthood, using his family’s fortune to meet the needs of the weak and poor.Nicholas later became a bishop in the city of Myra where, despite pressure from Rome, his good deeds and his efforts to spread Christianity became legendary – some even accepted as miracles by the Church. Nicholas, like many early saints and biblical figures, was not canonized through a formal process but his reputation among faithful was so great that his status was never challenged. 

Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre

Although the Myra church where Saint Nicholas originally served was destroyed by earthquakes, another church was built in Myra in his name. This church, which contained engravings and frescoes illustrating the life of Saint Nicholas, was flooded but restored by the Russian Tsar, Nicholas I  and Countess Anna Galicia. The restoration included the addition of a bell tower and cross-roof vaults, somewhat marring the authenticity of the building, but it did reveal the frescoes that had been hidden for centuries.These paintings in the Church of Saint Nicholas, including ‘A Journey to Bethlehem’ and ‘Helping the Family Without Children’, depict just a few of the many legends told about Saint Nicholas throughout the ages. However, the most prominent Saint Nicholas story is that of the Three Daughters.Allegedly, the three daughters of an impoverished single father had reached marriageable age, but their father could not produce a dowry. Nicholas secretly tossed bags of gold into the chimney (or perhaps the window) for each daughter, thus ensuring their happy futures.Over time, it is believed, the people of Myra came to realize that it was Bishop Nicholas who had been performing these good deeds. They continued the gifting tradition on the anniversary of Nicholas’s death each year. While we may never discover what actually happened, the tradition lives throughout the world in the Santa Claus tale. 

The Many Faces of Saint Nicholas

Also known as Saint Nicholas, he became one of the most beloved figures of Christianity in the 1200s, recognized as a saint who protected children and brought them gifts every year on December 6 (assisted by their families of course, as it is today).With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, where saints were shunned, baby Jesus and his birthdate December 25 replaced Saint Nicholas and the gifting date. However, Saint Nicholas of the past was not completely lost. Folk tales and illustrations from that era show him serving as an assistant to baby Jesus while distributing gifts to children.Saint Nicholas also emerged in other forms. In Austria and the Alpine region, the eve of December 5th is considered the night of the terrifying Krampus (Krampusnacht). Krampus, with origins in pagan myth, is the opposite side of Saint Nicholas who rewards good children with gifts the next day, on December 6th. On Krampusnacht, it was told to children that Krampus would chase and punish naughty children with sticks.In modern times, this tradition takes the form of the Krampus Run (Krampuslauf) where teens wearing scary masks with sticks chase smaller children around towns. Krampus has earned international fame by the movie “Krampus” in 2015 featuring Adam Scott and Toni Collette. In the movie Krampus appears to punish a family losing all their festive spirit for Christmas. 

A New Santa for a New Continent

More akin to the original Saint Nicholas, SinterKlaas in the Netherlands was the prototype of today’s Santa Claus. The red-coated, white-bearded SinterKlaas arrived via boat or horse, and distributed gifts to children during the holiday season.SinterKlaas was brought to the new world and, particularly to New York City, with Dutch immigrants. There, he was reborn as Santa Claus, thanks to writers like Clement Clarke Moore.  Moore, who was also a professor and a seminarian, penned the Christmas poem “The Story of a Visit from St. Nicholas” – also known as “The Night Before Christmas”. In these verses, he is described as a jolly and rotund character who can deliver gifts all around the world in just one night.The integration of Santa Claus into the commercial aspect of Christmas began in the 1840s. Starting from 1863, Thomas Nash drew Moore’s Santa Claus character for Harper’s Weekly. These illustrations depicted the Santa we know today, along with his home, the North Pole, and the helpful elves.By the 1880s, men dressed as Santa Claus were collecting aid for the homeless on the streets of New York. In 1939, Montgomery Ward dept. stores were publishing coloring books as gifts to children for Christmas and Robert L. May penned the “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” story for them. It became so popular that it is considered today as a part of Christmas folklore.In December 12th of 1955, Christmas and Santa Claus were featured on the cover of TIME magazine, as Christmas had by then become almost an industry. The TIME cover showed the “Toycoon” Louis Marx, in front of Santa Claus with many toys in the background. The cover was clearly revealing that the gift and toy industry had taken over the true meaning of Christmas. 

But It’s Not Just Santa Who Brings Gifts to Children!

Different figures in cultures around the world bring gifts to families when they gather at home in the cold of winter. While some of these figures seem to be a blend of Saint Nicholas and local folklore, others such as the Three Wise Men have more religious origins.In Slavic cultures, there are characters such as the Old Granny (Babushka) who visits homes on January 5 and distributes gifts to children and the Ded Moroz (Ice Grandfather), rooted in Slavic pagan mythology. These characters were banned in the early Soviet era but gradually re-emerged, post 1935. In Central Asia, Ded Moroz is also known as Ayaz Ata (Kazak) and Kış Baba (Tatar). In Azerbaijan, there is Ayaz Baba (Şaxta Baba), as well as a grandchild called Snow Girl.In many Spanish-speaking countries, the Three Wise Men distribute children’s gifts to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. Día de los Reyes (also called Epiphany day) is on January 6, the day after the last day of Christmas. In Spain, it is called Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day). 

Efforts to Promote Saint Nicholas of Demre

The Law for the Encouragement of Tourism  which came into force in Turkey in 1953, was designed to start initiatives to promote Turkey’s tourism potential. Stamps with “Demre, the birthplace of St. Nicholas” were issued by the Postal Service in 1955. An article in a 1955 issue of Cumhuriyet Newspaper noted that the stamps [1] and a film will be mentioned on the U.S. daily show “Today” with Dave Galloway, broadcast on NBC.The film was a nine-minute documentary called “The Land of Santa Claus”. Composed for broadcast on television channels abroad, the film and the stamp designs were prepared in collaboration with the Ripley company, famous for “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” comic series. [2]Meanwhile, the church in Demre, which had undergone several excavations, was opened as the Santa Claus Memorial Museum and was renamed as Saint Nicholas Memorial Museum in 2015. In 2014, this museum was the fifth most visited museum in Turkey, with only the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Konya Mevlana Museum and the Topkapi Palace Harem drawing more visitors. [3] 

Did You Know

Myra was an important city dating back in the fifth century BC and it takes its name from the myrrh, a valuable trade product in ancient times. Obtained from the myrrh tree (commiphora myrrha), the fragrant product emits a reddish-brown resin and was used in many areas, from perfumery to medicine. The presence of a myrrh blessing room “Myrophylon” and myrrh storage room “Myrophylakion” in the Myra excavations reveals the importance of this plant in ancient times.Evidence from excavations indicates that myrrh was used as incense for religious ceremonies, funerals, and marriage ceremonies, as well as in medical prescriptions and for many perfumes. About the myrrh, Plinius states that about 3,000 tons of incense material came to Rome and 600 tons of it was myrrh, which was “as valuable as gold”.  Hymns written to Saint Nicholas suggest that even his remnants exude fragrant and healing oils scented with myrrh.  


[1] http://koleksiyonodasi.com/10-aralik-1955-antalya-turistik-hatira-serisi/ [2] https://books.google.com.tr/books?id=Uhs7AQAAIAAJ&pg=RA13-PA9&lpg=RA13-PA9#v=onepage&q&f=false [3] https://arkeofili.com/turkiyenin-en-cok-ziyaret-edilen-10-muzesi/

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