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God • World • Human Family • Church

The World of St. Nicholas

The “ancestor” of Santa Claus lived a very different life than our famous Saint Nick of the North Pole.

When icy winds blow down from polar climes, and Christmastide draws nearer, children in many parts of the world look northward, thinking fondly on a jolly Christmas elf in a warm red fur-trimmed suit. But the real St. Nicholas, the “ancestor” of our Santa Claus, knew nothing of snow and arctic landscapes. He was the kindly bishop of Myra – today called Demre – in Asia Minor, which corresponds to the part of modern Turkey that lies in Asia. As a boy in Patara, where legend tells us he was born, Nicholas played on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea under a sun that was often warm and bright even in December.

Patara, located in a coastal province of Asia Minor called Lycia, boasted one of the great harbors of the ancient world. A magnificent lighthouse stood on Patara’s highest hill overlooking the harbor, where the docks were busy all day as men loaded goods for trade and unloaded cargoes from the shores of Egypt, Spain and Greece. A proud Roman governor held office in the city, from time to time consulting the oracle of Apollo, whose temple in Patara was a lure for pagan pilgrims from many lands.

Little is known of the early years of Nicholas, spent amid the bustle of politics and business at Patara, but he is said to have shown great holiness at an early age, giving generously to the poor. At some time during his young manhood, perhaps as a student of theology, he came to the city of Myra.

When the bishop of Myra died, bishops of the province gathered to elect a successor. Uncertain about whom to choose, they heard a voice in the night that told them, “The first man to enter the church in the morning will be your bishop.” Joyfully at daybreak they hailed Nicholas, first of all to prayers in Myra.

Christianity spread and thrived in the time of Nicholas, but persecution lay ahead for the flourishing Church. The Emperor Diocletian, pondering the words of the oracle of Apollo at Didyma, decided to eliminate forever what seemed to him a state within the heart of his empire. In 303, the ruler who called himself the “Divine Caesar” brought the might of imperial Rome against the Christians. Churches were vandalized and razed, and the followers of Christ were pursued relentlessly across the breadth of the empire. Nicholas himself, we are told, was imprisoned and tortured for the love of his faith. Finally, in 313, Emperor Constantine the Great restored the civil rights of the Christians, and as their faith spread, so did the fame of Nicholas.

For all his plain goodness, he must have been a commanding and patriarchal figure, a leader for God’s sake. Surely he was a preacher of overwhelming conviction, for people flocked to hear him in this land where silver-tongued orators were not uncommon. The tale is told of a mother who, in her haste to hear Nicholas, left her babies in a bath simmering over an open fire. Remembering what she had done, she hurried home in anguish, only to find that the prayers of Nicholas had preserved her children alive and unhurt.

The compassion of Nicholas is also revealed in the story of the three daughters of the impoverished nobleman. In order that they might not be sold into slavery or vice, Nicholas tossed bags of gold through their open windows at night so that they would have dowries for marriage. This is said to be the beginning of the custom of leaving gifts secretly on Christmas Eve, a custom first observed on the Eve of St. Nicholas. And the three golden balls that traditionally identify the shop of the pawn broker are said to represent the maidens’ three bags of gold.

Because of his great kindness to youth, Nicholas became the beloved patron of children. Scholars, sailors and merchants claimed his protection also, and the faithful told stories of many miracles worked by Nicholas on land and sea. Both the Latins and the Greeks paid great honor to him, and carried his fame far from the land of his birth. Thousands of churches were named for him, and he was made the official patron saint of Russia.

Though devotion to Nicholas has not changed, the world he lived in has vanished. Myra, now called Demre, is a slumbering village where lizards chase each other over the stones of the empty Roman theater. High on the cliffs, eagles fly through entrance ways in the rock, where elaborate tombs go unhonored and ancient Lycians stand forever silent, immobile figures in weathered stone. Patara, the splendid port of old, is a ghost city, its harbor silted in and its Roman ruins of temple and theater sinking slowly in blown dune sand.

Yet some things remain the same. Cypress trees still rise dark against the blue sky, men and women with donkey or horse carts still resting in their dusty shade as they did in Nicholas’ time. Bright flowers grow against the white walls of simple houses, and tiny children, the sons and daughters of the modern villagers of Demre, play near the church of the saint they know as Noel Baba, the “Christmas Father.” The basilica is now a ruin, but the children will show you the broken tomb from which, we are told, Nicholas’s body was stolen in 1087 by merchants from Bari, Italy. It should be saddening – the tomb of Santa Claus – but somehow it is not, for the children will not let sorrow overcome this place that is still holy with the memory of ancient Christian pilgrims.

As you walk away from the sleepy village of Demre, you bid the children the customary good-bye: “I commend you to God.” They will answer in the words that accompany all farewells on these shores: “Gule, gule! Go with laughter!” What better wish at Christmas, or any other time, from the land of the beloved Saint Nicholas.

Charles E. Adelsen, an American journalist, lives in Istanbul and writes frequently about the Middle East.

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