“Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, lean your ear this way…”

The lyrics to this age-old Christmas carol (and dozens more like it) are familiar to everyone in the western world, but most do not realize the facts behind the legend nor the man behind the myth that is Santa Claus. Living in the cradle of civilization has opened my eyes to new cultural perspectives and a new global way of thinking. Being a teacher, it’s my job to educate young minds; however, I’ve been learning a thing or two myself over these past couple years living overseas.

The real stomping grounds of St. Nick are quite far from the North Pole
The real stomping grounds of St. Nick are quite far from the North Pole

Also known as the ‘Wonder-Worker’, Nikolaos of Myra had many miracles attributed to him. He was born in Lycia – the modern day city of Demre in southwestern Turkiye, on the Mediterranean coast – in the latter half of the 3rd century and did most of his good works in the 4th. The region’s inhabitants, at the time, were predominately Greek and politically part of the Roman diocese of Asia. Nikolaos was no different and, as the only son of wealthy Christians, became very religious at an early age.

He became a bishop as a young man and in 325 AD, joined Constantine at the First Council of Nicaea (also in Turkiye) where he defended an orthodox position and signed the Nicene Creed. According to legend, the man who would be saint solved a horrific crime in which a butcher murdered three boys to sell their flesh (posing as ham) during a famine. St. Nicholas resurrected the boys with a few prayers.

The Dowry of the Three Daughters
The Dowry of the Three Daughters

In another, more famous, tale St. Nicholas heard about a poor man who had three daughters he could not afford a dowry for, which meant they’d be forced into prostitution. In response to the story, he visited them under cover of darkness and threw three purses filled with gold coins – one for each daughter – into the window of their house for three consecutive nights. One variation of the story describes the youngest daughter, having washed her stockings and hung them over the fire to dry the night before, waking up to find them full of the gold St. Nick dropped down the chimney!

At least the white beard's correct...
At least the white beard’s correct…

 

 

It isn’t difficult to make the leap from savior of potential prostitutes to gift-giver of good little boys and girls. Our present day iteration of Santa Claus was created in the 19th century by cartoonist Thomas Nast (the round little belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly); however, in 2005, a scientific survey conducted of the bones buried in St. Nicholas’ crypt – located in Bari, Italy – revealed that, in reality, he was only five feet tall and had a broken nose.

Recently, at least in the major cities such as Ankara, the Turkish people celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas without even realizing what they’re doing. They hang lights, give gifts, and some even put up Christmas trees. Men dressed in red velvet suits, whom they refer to as Noel Baba – or Father Christmas – can be seen in the shopping malls, although, most of my students believe his significance has more to do with the New Year than anything else.

Is there a secret massive epidemic of Turks converting to Christianity? No, but in all likelihood, those select few giving gifts and decorating trees aren’t devout Muslims either (99% of the country identifies their religion as Islam, yet only 45%-65% are practicing). Many Turks care about the man known as Santa Claus, albeit not in exactly the same way as western culture. They take great pride in knowing that an important figure in the United States and across Europe hails from their native land.

Nast's 1881 Original Lithograph depicting his, and now the modern, version of St. Nick
Nast’s 1881 Original Lithograph depicting his, and now the modern, version of St. Nick

The name Santa Claus comes from a blending of Saint Nikolaos (pronounced in eastern Europe as San Neek Klaus) and the traditional winter solstice celebration that takes place in the Netherlands, Belgium, and other local countries called Sinterklaas. Historically speaking, however, every culture throughout history has venerated this time of year.

In the ancient world, going as far back as the Neolithic, much of the day-to-day life was centered on a keen awareness of the sun, the stars and the annual cycle of the seasons. Humans, for thousands of years, maintained a very limited understanding of the physical world around them, and the return of the Earth’s only source of light and heat – during the winter solstice – has been a time of good cheer and great celebration, both secular and spiritual because people weren’t sure they’d survive the harsh cold.

On the surface, the solstice celebration is about the promise of the greening of the earth and the warming of the days. But on a deeper spiritual level, the festivals honor the rebirth of light, as a metaphor, which guides and sustains all of creation. Christianity has adapted many of its traditions on the pagan religious practices, including festivities that chronicled the sun’s victory over the darkness and the gradual disappearance of the cold weather.

Stonehenge on December 22nd
Stonehenge on December 22nd

Think about it… The seasonal celebrations all stem from simple astronomy! It’s sun-worship on a fundamental level. Spring festivals celebrate rebirth, full of flowers and baby animals. Midsummer festivals date back to the dawn of mankind, and the autumnal festivals focus predominantly on the harvesting of crops – with traditions stretching back to the agricultural revolution (approx. 10,000 BC).

Regardless of your holiday traditions or which of the dozen winter solstice celebrations you subscribe to, it’s evident that Noel Baba – originally from Turkiye – has become a major influence across the continents for almost two thousand years. People all over the world strive to emulate his generosity and hospitality through gift-giving and good fellowship. It is in his footsteps that I sincerely wish you and your loved ones a very happy holiday season!

Until Next Time…

-Justin

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