Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the American Santa Claus, as well as the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas, which are all derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.
There are few saints better known than Saint Nicholas of Myra, yet his birthdate is lost to history; his birthplace in Patara on the south coast of Turkey is only first recorded in the tenth century, though no one has ever suggested that Saint Nicholas was born anywhere else. He is assumed to have died on December 6, 345 (or 352) in Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey.
The tradition of Saint Nicholas Day, on 6 December, is a festival for children in many countries in Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts.
Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop who was famous for his generous gifts to the poor. Many of the St. Nicholas stories seem to be truth interwoven with imagination. Many facts concerning St. Nicholas contain some part of historical truth and yet there is remarkably little that we can say for certain about his life.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, and children, and students in Greece, Belgium, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Russia, the Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Serbia, and Montenegro. He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Beit Jala, Huguenots, Liverpool, and Siggiewi. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Santa Claus the patron saint of New Amsterdam, the historical name for New York City.
Nicholas’ tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. For both the religious and commercial advantages of a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics.
In the spring of 1087, Italian merchants, during the confusion of the Seljuk invasion, stole his body at Myra and transported it to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. A church was built over St. Nicholas’ crypt and Bari became a pilgimage center where many journeyed to honor the saint who had rescued children, prisoners, sailors, famine victims. Which is probably why he is the patron saint of, among many others, thieves. To this day pilgrims and tourists visit Bari’s great Basilica di San Nicola where his relics are still preserved. An oily substance called Manna di S. Nicola, which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, is said to flow from them.
The taking of Saint Nicholas’ body to Italy has rang down through the ages to modern times. A Turkish archaeologist has called on his government to demand that Italy return the bones of St Nicholas to their original resting place. In a more humorous aside, an adventurist and professional sea kayak instructor named Dean Livesley has put together an ambitious program to voyage to Bari by kayak and return with the remains of the Saint. Quote: “The bones look set to stay put in the Italian church unless an act of religious piracy and high sea adventure could bring the saintly remnants back home to Myra…MISSION: TO RETRIEVE SAINT NICHOLAS and RETURN HIS SACRED BONES TO THEIR RIGHTFUL PLACE, if not at least carry some manna to sprinkle on Myra’s sacred basilica. A MODERN PILGRIMAGE Turkey has the St. Pauls Trail, now it’s time for St. Nicks’ voyage.” He is looking for volunteers, good luck Dean.
Perhaps a bit more peaceful and slightly less startling events also happen in Demre. For example, ever since 1983 the annual Father Christmas Symposium is held, a festival and meeting place lasting about a week over the 6th of December, St. Nicholas Day. “Religious and scientific people come from many countries for the Activities for World Peace with Santa Claus, including the Santa Claus Peace Award.” In 1991 the Santa Claus Foundation was founded to promote “peace, friendship and brotherhood.” Thousands of Orthodox Christians visit Demre and the Saint Nicholas Church in a pilgrimage to venerate the Saint. Along with these pilgrims are many tourists curious about this claim of the Turks to the home of Saint Nicholas.
In today’s Turkey, a country of mostly Muslim people, Santa Claus (or Noel Baba in Turkish) is quite likely to be seen in shops and advertisements, on the streets and even in schools a recent tradition has grown up of gift giving at New Year’s. Saint Nicholas is remembered in the land of his birth as a person who cared for all people, especially children. He is appreciated for his caring, humanitarian values, and of course he also gives a boost to the economy.
“The tradition of Saint Nicholas Day, usually on 6 December ( [O.S. 19 December (in most Orthodox countries)], is a festival for children in many countries in Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American Santa Claus, as well as the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas, derive from these legends. ‘Santa Claus’ is itself derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas.”
The Saint Nicholas Center in Demre tells us that “Thousands of tourists from all over the world flock to Demre (formerly Myra) searching for the roots of Saint Nicholas. They come as pilgrims, especially from Russia—up to sixty bus loads a day during the peak season—where Saint Nicholas is revered as patron and a father of Orthodox faith.”
Dean Livesley, in his article “Bag Of Bones”, suggests a mission to “retrieve saint nicholas and return his sacred bones to their rightful place, if not at least carry some manna to sprinkle on Myra’s sacred basilica.” He proposes a sea kayak voyage from “Bari, Southern Italy. The challenge is to sea kayak 2600km across the Adriactic and Agean Seas before paddling the south western coastline of Turkey calling in at Patara (St. Nicholas Birthplace) before arriving at Andriake the port of Myra. The voyage finishes at the St. Nicholas Church in Demre with the saints blessing on December 25th (Christmas Day).”
“Church of St. Nicholas, Myra (Kale/Demre)-Sacred Destinations is a ruined Byzantine church containing the tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra (the inspiration for Santa Claus), as well as many fine mosaics and murals.”
Santa Claus has early Christian origins, “Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and simply ‘Santa’, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24.”
“Who is St. Nicholas?Who is Santa Claus? Are they the same? The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.”
“Was St. Nicholas A Real Person?…the following facts of the life of St. Nicholas could contain some part of historical truth. They provide a clear sense of his personal characteristics which are further elaborated in other narratives.”
“Saint Nicholas (270 – 6 December 343), also called Nikolaos of Myra, was a historic 4th-century saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, part of modern-day Turkey) in Lycia. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus…”
Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Wonder-Worker “There are few saints better known than Saint Nicholas of Myra, and yet there is remarkably little that we can say for certain about his life. His birthdate is lost to history; even his birthplace (Parara of Lycia, in Asia Minor) is first recorded in the tenth century, though it was drawn from traditional legends and may be correct. (No one has ever suggested that Saint Nicholas was born anywhere else.)”
Lycian Sites: Myra “Myra was a leading city of the Lycian Union and surpassed Xanthos in early Byzantine times to become the capital city of Lycia. Its remains are situated about 1.5 km north of today’s Demre…”