by Ben Densin

When I was first assigned to Turkey, I asked a Turkish friend if they had a "Santa Claus" in Turkey. He said, matter-of-factly, "yes. He was buried here."

Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, is called "Noel Baba" in Turkey. While the popular myth is that he lives at the North Pole, he actually lived and died in Turkey during the fourth century. He was the Bishop of Myra, now called Demre, near Antalya. A Byzantine basilica in Demre honors his memory, and the tale of his generosity is not forgotten in Turkey. The story is of a bishop tip-toeing through the streets of old Myra to toss bags of gold through open windows or down chimneys. He is said to have been the sole heir of a wealthy family and shared his money secretly with the less fortunate. Among many others, one story told how he gave a nobleman three sacks of gold for his daughter's dowries because the nobleman was too poor to pay the dowries himself. The first two bags, he tossed through an open window. But when he found the window tightly shut on his third visit, he went down the chimney instead, dropping the sack in a red sock that was drying on the mantlepiece.

Since then, it has become a tradition to put oranges in Christmas stockings to symbolize the sacks of gold. Also, the three golden balls that pawn shops use as their symbol originated from this story. After Saint Nicholas died in 323 A.D., his priests buried him in an elaborate marble sarcophagus they periodically filled with fragrant oil. The oil dripped through cavities in the sarcophagus, and the priests did a lucrative business selling vials of it to pilgrims wo believed the oil had miraculous powers. The Saint Nicholas church was built in his memory after his death. The church is one of the oldest in Turkey, dating from the fifth century. Tales of Saint Nicholas spread westward and in April 1087 merchants from Bari, Italy, opened the Saint's sarcophogus and took his bones to Italy believing they would bring them weath. Other stories have it that Saint Nicholas was moved so he would be buried in a Christian land. Based on that event, the cities of Bari and Antalya were declared sister cities several years ago. A few pieces from Saint Nicholas' sarcophagus are on display in the Antalya museum.

In 1886, a Russian prince had the church restored by an architect. Instead of the cupola, a crosswise arch unrelated to Byzantine architecture was placed there and a belfry was added. The sarchopagus found inside the western apse is believed to be Saint Nicholas'. Every year on December 6th, the day Saint Nicholas died, there is a service in Saint Nicholas' Church in Demre. This is also the first day of a week-long festival held in Demre sponsored by the Santa Claus Foundation. There is a bronze statue of Saint Nicholas in Demre, erected in 1981, which looks very much like the typical Santa Clause with a long beard, a sack over his shoulder, and a group of small children gathered around him.

So yes, there was a Santa Claus. And he was buried in Turkey.

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