Greek Santa: Who really is Santa Claus?

HO 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, that 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 big, I mean metaphorically not girth, 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.

But where did this chap 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. You will think that I am making up what I tell you 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 nine 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, told me that Santa 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. I asked around the local shops, but when I asked my question about Mr Claus, the friendly shop attendants (who could not speak English) thought I was asking for a kebab and water.

Back in Sydney I embarked on a research mission and toyed with the thought of writing a letter to Santa, 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 Byzantine emperor Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium, Constantinople. 

Saint Nicholas was born in the Greek coastal village of Patara in Asia Minor (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 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. 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 Constantine when pagan Roman emperors felt it necessary to punish “non-believers.”

There are many stories to tell of Nicholas and while 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 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. Nicholas, today 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 900s, 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 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 safeguard 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.

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. Speaking of America, one can only imagine how Nicholas would react to the ways or the last president, when kindness, respect, generosity and love were his mantra.

It is debatable why the celebration of Santa Claus was moved to December 25. Was it to compliment the celebration of the birth of Jesus, though it’s unlikely he was actually born on 25 December? You can argue that businesses and merchants came to realise that it would be a clever commercial decision while 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, which can never be underestimated.

The downside in all of this, very few people were actually aware of his origins. These days, 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 worldwide. Therefore, next Christmas I will write my letter to Santa 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.

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