Wednesday, December 30th, 2009
The original Santa Claus, the third century Saint Nicholas, was born and died in what is now Demre, Turkey. In his day it was the Hellenistic Lycian city of Myra and he was its bishop. He was known for leaving gifts for the needy, like gold coins in shoes left outside people’s doors, even climbing down a chimney once to leave a gift.
He was buried in Myra, as per his request, and there he remained for centuries. In 1087, sailors from the Italian city of Bari took advantage of the chaos from invading Seljuk Turks to abscond with St. Nicholas’ bones, over the vociferous objections of the Orthodox monks caring for them. They claimed they had a vision from St. Nick himself, to preserve his remains from the Muslim invader; others claimed they were just thieving pirates.
The bones were re-interred in a church in Bari, where they’ve been ever since. Now Turkey is considering asking for them back. Turkey is primarily Muslim so they don’t worship him as a saint, but they certainly appreciate his tourism value.
Prof Nevzat Cevik, head of archaeological research in Demre, says Saint Nicholas had made it clear during his life that he wanted to be buried in his home town.
Even without the bones, the town of Demre has not been shy about cashing in on its most famous native son – today visitors to the Byzantine church there are greeted by a large, plastic Santa statue, complete with beard and red snow-suit.
Classy. I can see how they might want something a little more upmarket, especially since St. Nicholas’ remains are said to exude a rose watery myrrh kind of substance called manna which is collected every year on December 6th, his saint day, and sold at the church gift shop.
The bones have been scientifically examined only once, in the 1950s. They found a largely intact skeleton of a small man — about 5 feet tall, short even back then — with a broken nose. No explanation of the manna thing, but Bari is a seaside town and he is buried in a crypt below sea level, so there could be various causes of moisture.