HO HO HO HO HO. Sounds like something you would hear in a Snoop Dogg song. Actually this is the calling card of that rather paunch grey haired guy who magically appears every Christmas. I’m of course referring to Santa Claus, one of the great cultural icons of modern times. In fact, so popular is he that kids, parents, commercial industries and even our esteemed national leaders get in on the act (that is when they are not kissing babies). Santa Claus is so big, I mean metaphorically, that whole industries are created around him and many tall tales are told about how he checks up on children to find out if they have been naughty or nice – come on now, you the Christmas carol, sing along with me.
But where did this guy come from, was he just another invention of international shopping conglomerates to sell more products at the end of the year? Well you will be rather by surprised by his origins, in fact as a (renown?) writer of medieval Greek history you will think that I am making up what I tell you next next.
It seems that Santa Claus indeed existed (finally after all these years it is true, I just knew it). After coming to the realisation when I was about 9 that he was simply a mythical figure, I must admit I gave him little thought over the next 20 years. They had duped me as a kid by telling me that this weird guy flies in the sky and is real a person. Why had I never seen him at the local park or the shopping arcade?
Anyway, on a recent trip to Turkey something happened that changed my opinion. My tour guide to the ancient Greek site of Ephesus near Kusadeci (highly recommended site to visit) told me that Santa Claus had originated from Turkey. Intrigued but not entirely convinced by a tour guide who also told me that Turkey had rather mild weather (it was an extremely hot day), I decided to find out what I could about Santa Claus. I asked around the local shops, but when I asked my question about Santa Claus, the friendly shop attendants (who could not speak English) thought I was asking for a kebab and water.
Back in my home country I embarked on a research mission and toyed with the thought of writing a letter to Santa Claus, but realised that I was a grown up and that would be wrong. Anyway, it turns out that my tour guide was correct in some respects. Santa Claus, or rather Saint Nicholas indeed existed in what today is known as Turkey.
Saint Nicholas is arguably the most revered saint in the Orthodox and Catholic worlds and in keeping with my fascination with Byzantine (medieval) Greece, I discovered that he was alive and prominent during the early Byzantine years. That period commenced in 324 AD when the great Byzantine Emperor Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium, Constantinople. The Empire of the Greeks would last for over 1100 years, until1453.
Saint Nicholas was born in the Greek village of Patara in Asia Minor (on the coast of modern day Turkey) to a very wealthy merchant family, perhaps in the year 280 AD.
Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, another Greek city in Asia Minor, and dedicated his lifetime to helping the poor and the vulnerable, with a soft spot for working with women at risk of prostitution and children. Nicholas spent his entire fortune on providing secret gifts to people, the beginning of the Santa Claus gift giving phenomenon (well before it was greatly encouraged by those so-called toy factories and Department stores).
Nicholas was also an advocate for prisoners and those who were unfairly denied justice, perhaps a prelude to modern day legal aid (if only he could pay a visit to Guantanamo Bay). Life was not always simple for Nicholas, he spent time in exile and prison for his religious beliefs, as there were various occasions before the rise of Byzantine Emperor Constantine when pagan Roman Emperors felt it necessary to punish “non-believers.”
There are many stories to tell of Nicholas and whilst he was certainly no old guy with grey hair that loved nothing better than scoffing pudding and milk, he was an energetic man who performed a number of miracles. I have heard about the time that, as protector of children, he was brought back to life a number of children who were killed by an evil innkeeper. Nicholas had had a dream whereby the evil innkeeper killed the children and placed them in a barrel. The next day he used his magic and a few prayers to bring them back to life and so it is that today, Nicholas is the patron saint of children. He is also the patron saint of sailors, students, criminals, captives, merchants, paupers, travellers and the list goes on.
Another story that I came across relates to the dowries of young women. In the old days and in some modern villages dowries are a must (what’s the point of moving with the times they like to say). If a family was poor, and they could not offer their daughters to prospective husbands, inevitably meant that these women would find themselves in a world of prostitution and unsavoury men. In order to protect the women in his city, Nicholas would secretly throw bags of money through windows and chimneys – giving rise to the myth that Santa Claus comes down the chimney. Having said that, I’m not sure why he would ever want to wait at the chimney for pudding and milk.
Nicholas, which means “victory to the people” in Greek, would certainly live up to his name during his lifetime. The Bishop of Myra dedicated his entire life to worthy ideals and died of natural causes on December 6, 343 AD. He is the patron saint not only for Greece and many other Orthodox countries, he is also revered in places such as Belgium, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, France. Across the world, there are over 2000 churches named in his honour, including in America, Australia, Brazil, Asia, Africa, Europe. After the baptism of Vladimir I of Russia in Constantinople in the 900’s, the Tsar brought back countless stories of Nicholas for his people to hear, ensuring that he became the patron Saint of Russia.
Nicholas’ tomb is surprisingly not in modern day Turkey, it is actually in the Italian city of Bari. It was taken to this former Byzantine stronghold by Bari sailors in 1087 against the wishes of the Greek clergy in order to safe guard his bones from the growing power of the Ottoman Turks, who had by this time made an appearance in Asia Minor.
The feast day of Saint Nicholas is held on December 6 and every year cities and villages in Europe celebrate whilst parents secretly provide presents (or is it actually Nicholas). In Bari, the sailors enjoy a regatta in the harbour to mark his feast day.
So how did he evolve into Santa Claus from the humble Greek Bishop? Do you blame corporate America or do you blame Germany. It argued that it is the latter country were the name Saint Nicholas is changed to Sentz Miklos to fit into the German vernacular. German influence ensured that early settlers to America continued the traditions of Nicholas and the name developed in many countries to Santa Claus, even in Germany they now know him by that name. The Americans have a knack for storytelling and imagination and by the twentieth century, Santa Claus had developed a peculiar look and a very unique outfit.
It is debatable why the celebration of Santa Claus was moved to December 25. You can argue that businesses and merchants came to realise that it would be a clever commercial decision whilst others have said that it was intentional to ensure that it did not clash with the existing date for Saint Nicholas’ feast day celebrations. Whatever the reason, he brings enormous joy and a sense of fun to children, this can never be under estimated.
The down side in all of this is the fact that very few people (myself included) were actually aware of his origins. These days the city of Myra is known as Demre in Turkey and there are two statues proudly on display in his honour, one donated by the Russian Government and the other from local authorities. It is disappointing that the Greek origins of Nicholas have largely been forgotten. Even in Greece the significant role that Saint Nicholas played in creating the mythical Santa Claus is not widely understood. So next Christmas I will write my letter to Santa Claus with the express wish that he not only provide me with a brand new bicycle, that he also tell the world who he really is.