Site Search

The History of Santa Claus and His Life in Antalya,Turkey

Santa Claus, who is portrayed as an old man wearing red-and-white clothing and driving a sleigh pulled by a team of flying reindeer carrying gifts to children, was actually Saint Nicholas who was born and bred, lived to become a bishop, achieved sainthood, and eventually buried in the land which is in the present day borders of Turkey.

Saint Nicholas, who is involved in many a childhood memories, was born in and lived his life in lands which is part of Turkey. His birth place is the ancient city of Patara, which is adjacent to the Gelemis village of the Antalya province. Following his education, Saint Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, present day Demre town. There is a church in Demre built in memory of Saint Nicholas which also harbours his grave. During your visit to Turkey, you may follow the footsteps of Saint Nicholas by visiting all settlements in a couple of days, and enjoy the natural beauty and historical heritage they offer to you.

Who Was St. Nicholas?

Born in Patara, a land that is part of present-day Turkey, circa 280, St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop who helped the needy. After his death, the legend of his gift-giving grew. St. Nicholas transformed into the legendary character called Santa Claus, who brings Christmas presents to children around the world.

Santa Claus and His Life

St. Nicholas Church

Saint Nicholas, who is known worldwide as Santa Claus, was born in the ancient Lycian city of Patara, an important city on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.

Around 300 AD, during a prosperous era for Patara, a rich wheat merchant had a son and named him Nicholas. His birth was accepted as a gift from the Heavens, the fruit of his parents’ prayers and wows and a savior for the poor people. It is believed that he performed miracles even as a young man. According to one legend, Nicholas was trapped under the wreckage of an old church and he survived it while his mother was crying and calling out for him.

After the death of Nicholas’ father, he inherited a large estate which he decided to use to aid the poor. At around the same time, one of Patara’s wealthiest men fell into poverty to such an extent that he lacked the means to even put together dowries for his daughters. He felt so desperate that he was even considering selling his daughters when Nicholas decided to help them. One night he entered the their house secretly in order to remain anonymous and also to spare the family’s honor. While the family was asleep he dropped into the open window of the eldest daughter a bag of gold, enough to cover her dowry. In the morning, the daughter was overjoyed the find the gold which would save her from this desperate situation.

Later, Nicholas also decided to help the two younger daughters but since as their windows were closed, he dropped the money for them in a bag from the chimney. This started the legend of Santa Claus distributing presents at Christmas time. This story also explains why he is depicted in pictures and iconographic representations bearing three balls made of gold.

Another story from St. Nicholas’ life is as follows:

Nicholas went to Jerusalem to become a pilgrim. On his way back, he saved a ship from sinking. Miraculously, he also brought a drowned sailor back to life. From that time on, St. Nicholas has been known as the patron saint of sailors.

After some years, Nicholas left his home of Patara and moved to the nearby city of Myra. At that time, the bishop of Myra had passed away and no agreement could be reached on his successor. Finally the city’s residents decided that the next person to enter the local church would become their next bishop. The first to enter was Nicholas, and so he took on the church post. His miracles continued in Myra, including an incident in which he saved the lives of three generals. Another story goes as follows:

One year Myra experienced a great famine. A fleet carrying corn from Alexandria to Byzantium stopped off at Myra’s harbor of Andriake. Nicholas ran to the harbor and demanded that each ship give him a certain share of corn. When the sailors returned to Byzantium, they were shocked to discover that all the corn that they had given unwillingly was right back where they had left it.

Like many Christians of his era, Nicholas was imprisoned for a time on account of his faith by the Emperors Diocletian and Licinius. In 325, Nicholas participated in a council meeting held to settle a number of theological disputes within Christianity in his capacity as the bishop of Myra. A churchman named Bonaventure claimed that on his way to the council, Nicholas brought back to life three children who had been killed and were about to be eaten. Legend says that Nicholas, who is also known as the patron saint of students, is believed to have passed away at the age of 65 on December 6, 343. The Myrians built a church to honor his saintly memory and interred him in a sarcophagus as his final resting place.

On April 20, 1087, during the First Crusade, some parts of his skeleton were stolen and taken away by merchants from Bari. The rest of his remains can currently be found at the Antalya Museum.

Here are six facts about Santa Claus and Turkey that You Never Knew ;

1 – Santa Claus was born in the town of Patara on the South West coast of Turkey between the years of 260 and 280AD.  Technically, the republic of Turkey was not formed until 1923 so if you want to split hairs, Patara at that time was under Lycian rule.

2 – The true name of Santa Claus was Nicholas and in adult life, he became the bishop of Myra which was a town further up the coast from Patara. It is now called Demre.

3 – When Nicholas’s parents died, they left him a lot of money and made him a wealthy man. He wanted to help people who were poor but he wanted to do it in secret so the agile bishop used to climb on the roofs of people’s houses and drop coins down the chimney. One day, a citizen caught him in the act and his good nature was revealed to the town.

4 – Upon his death, a memorial was erected in the town but it would be a number of years before he gained the holiest of titles and that was as Saint Nicholas. He also became the patron saint of sailors but more specifically of children as he was remembered for giving them nuts, fruit and sweets for good behavior. Bribery was alive and kicking even back then.

5 – December the 6th become associated with the feast of St Nicholas and in later years, a bishop declared December the 25th as the birth of Jesus. Over time, the two celebrations began to fuse together and that was the first connection between Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas and Christmas day traditions.

6 –In the late 1800’s drawings appeared of St Nicholas aka Santa Claus with a beard, pipe and a large belly. The  transformation of a humble saint called Nicholas to a fat, jolly man who feasts on mince pies and gets stuck in chimneys,  had began.  (God knows how the North pole, loyal elves and flying reindeer came about)

Church of Santa Claus in Demre (Myra), Turkey

A larger church in the basilica style was built at the site of the first church after it was ruined by an earthquake in 529. Peschlow assumes that two small residences on the southern part of the large wall and some parts of the northern wall are remnants of the original building. That church also suffered extensive damage through either an earthquake or at the hands of Arabian raiders in the eighth century and was subsequently rebuilt, but then in 1034 was completely destroyed in the attacks of the Arabian navy. An inscription on the church tells us that the building remained in ruins for a decade before being restored in 1042 under the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus and his wife Zöe. In the twelfth century, the building was enlarged with some additions and rebuilt once again.

The Turks began to govern Myra in the 13th century and in that period people worshipped freely at the church and the building was repaired. In 1738, the chapel near the main building was also repaired. C. Texier, a traveler who toured Anatolia in 1833-1837, visited Myra and mentioned the historical church in his books. Then in March of 1842, a soldier named Lt. Spratt and a professor named Forbes came to Myra and drew a sketch of the church. They were able to discern that a monastery had once stood near it.

During the Crimean War in 1853, a group of Russians became interested in the church and they purchased land in the name of Countess Golici, intending to found a Russian colony there. The Ottoman state recognized the political dimension of this initiative and took the land back, but they relented to demands that the church be restored. In 1862, a Frenchman named August Salzmann was hired to do the restoration. However, his work was badly thought out and it violated the church’s original design. Under Salzmann’s watch a bell tower was added to building in 1876, which has survived to our day.

Nearly 2,000 churches were ascribed to Santa Claus, the holy saint of many cities. His life story and his miracles are recorded in many books, the earliest written by a friar named Michael from the Byzantiumis Stadion Monastery in 750-800. Let’s take a stroll together through this beautiful site, the church of St. Nicholas.

After coming through the entrance, you walk along a path and can see a statue of Santa Claus in the green area.

A cross-shaped chapel was built on the south of this church, which was the only church with a dome that existed here in the fourth century. The church was also enlarged towards the north. Additionally, in 1862-63, a narthex and some adjacent structures were added to the building both inside and out.

In fact, the main entrance of the building is on the west side but let’s continue with on our present direction. From the courtyard, of which two pillars still remain, taking a few steps down will bring you to the southern section, which was added to the main building during the Byzantine era. This part is shaped like a cross, and here can be found an apse with three arches. You can see the original stylobate, or column foundation, at the front and the alter pedestal in the middle of the apse. In the apse’s niche can be seen figures of several saints whose coloring is now faded. In the small niche below them there is a fresco of Santa Claus. In this section and on the floor of the main church’s southeastern chapel, there are mosaics in various styles. In the niche, which stands against the western stairs, there are frescoes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

The well-preserved door leads us to the long side of the cross-shaped chapel where sarcophagi stand. This is the longer side of the cross in the chapel. The frescoes of the niches which contain sarcophagi are decorated with many illustrations of saints, but time has almost completely faded them away. Two niches on the northern wall and the Virgin Mary fresco on the column are interesting specimens. Inscriptions on the column which bears the Santa Claus fresco tell us that it was placed upside down.

The first Roman-style sarcophagus with acanthus leaves in the first niche belongs to Santa Claus. It is said that the decoration of the sarcophagus with fish squamae designs symbolizes his protection over sailors. The sarcophagus was broken by the pirates from Bari on April 20, 1087 when they stole some parts of his skeleton and took it with them to Bari.

The other two sarcophagi are rather unadorned. Apart from the sarcophagi in the niches, there are also two more tombs on the ground. From here, you can go through the main courtyard furnished with big panels via a door. In the courtyard, there are two empty tombs in a niche. The motifs of cross and hoe must have been done in the memory of Santa Claus. On the left, there is a tomb placed in the wall inscribed with the date 1118. Through the courtyard, you can go first to the outer narthex, and then to the inner narthex which leads you to the main area after passing through three doors. This place is full of bishops’ illustrations. This main area opens to side naves with three arches. There are two naves on the southern part of the main building. Some say that the sarcophagus of the second nave belongs to Santa Claus, but relieves of a man and woman on the sarcophagus prove otherwise. There’s another tomb in the niche of the side nave. On the dome of the northern nave there are frescoes of Jesus and his 12 apostles. Excavations on the side nave are continuing. On the western part of the excavation area, there are three chambers. There should be a dome with windows and rims in the middle of the building but during Salzmann’s restoration, the area was covered with a large skeletal stone rib.

Photos of St.Nicholas Church, Demre

Don`t copy text!