Santa Claus, that rather paunchy, silver-haired guy who magically appears every Christmas, is one of the great cultural icons of modern times. So popular is he that commercial industries are created around him and even our esteemed national leaders get in on the act. 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? You will be rather surprised by his origins.
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, I decided to find out what I could about Santa Claus, or rather Saint Nicholas, who 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 AD324, when the great Byzantine Emperor Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium, Constantinople. The empire of the Greeks would last for over 1,100 years, until 1453.
Saint Nicholas was born in the Greek village of Patara in Asia Minor (Mediterranean Turkey) to a very wealthy merchant family, perhaps in the year AD280. Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, another Greek city in Asia Minor, and dedicated his life 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 gift-giving phenomenon (well before it was greatly encouraged by 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 while he was certainly no old guy with grey hair who loved nothing better than scoffing pudding and milk, he was in fact an energetic man who performed a number of miracles.
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 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 … the list goes on.
Another story that I came across relates to the dowries of young women. If a family was poor, and they could not offer their daughters to prospective husbands, inevitably it meant 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.
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, AD343. 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, and France. Across the world, there are over 2,000 churches named in his honour. 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 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 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 while 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? Saint Nicholas was changed to Sentz Miklos to fit into the German vernacular. Early settlers to America continued the traditions, while the name developed to Santa Claus. The Americans have a knack for storytelling and imagination, and by the 20th century, Santa Claus had developed a peculiar look and a very unique outfit.
As for why the celebration of Santa Claus was moved to December 25, one 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. This can never be underestimated.
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.
*Billy Cotsis is a freelance writer and director of Draconian Decision of the German Drachma.