Bill Egan

Christmas Historian

To most Americans, St. Nicholas is just another name for Santa Claus -- jolly and rotund. To most of Europe and Asia, he is an austere figure dressed in bishop's robes.

St. Nicholas was born in Patara around A.D. 280 in Asia Minor and became bishop of Myra, now Demre, in Turkey. (Myra is a three hour bus ride across the mountains from Patara.)

The only definite historical evidence of his life is in the records of the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which was responsible for creating the Nicene Creed, a famous statement of doctrine. He was definitely in attendance, although it's not known what role he may have played in the meetings and deliberations.

Nicholas probably suffered in the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian, which lasted until about 311, at which time he would have been around 31-years-old. The new emperor, Constantine, tolerated and then encouraged and finally established Christianity as the state religion. Nicholas died about 343.

It was not long after his death that the legends began and his popularity began to spread.

Saint Nicholas lived his adult life in Myra, where he was the bishop of the city. The Church of Saint Nicholas, in Myra, was built after his death. "Noel Baba's" remains were placed in a rock sarcophagus. Outside the church, in a lush and beautiful park, is a modern statue of Saint Nicholas complete with beard, bag of toys, and children. Unlike the American Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is depicted as a tall thin man, dressed in a hooded robe.

An annual St. Nicholas Festival is held in Myra, for three days around the saint's official Feast Day, Dec. 6. The celebration attracts many tourists who spend their Christmas holidays on the sunny coast of ancient Lycia.

Myra contains other impressive ruins. A mile north of Saint Nicholas’s church, Lycian tombs are carved, stories high, into a hillside above a Roman amphitheater. They are an impressive sight and should not be missed.

Antalya, the main town of Turkey's Mediterranean coast, is a scenic four to five hour bus ride from Myra. Antalya is a vibrant metropolis, not only from the tourist trade but because it is a major Turkish port. The town's Archaeological Museum contains several bone fragments of the former Bishop of Myra, in a red-lined case. Only these few fragments have been preserved in Turkey, while the rest were removed to Italy.

Other than the St. Nicholas recognition in Myra, Christmas is not a major holiday in Turkey.

Christmas is a Christian tradition and even though there are a lot of Jewish or Christian people who live in Turkey, the main religion is Islam so they don't have Christmas celebrations as part of their national traditions. Turkey's main celebration in late December salutes the outgoing year and welcomes the new year.

For the last ten or twenty years in Turkey, people began to use pine trees as a decoration for the New Year celebration, however, this is receiving criticism from some religious groups.

Champagne Corks and Fireworks

For the past decade people have gathered in city circles to greet the New Year with champagne and fireworks.

There are companies that build giant screens at the circles so people can watch what is happening at the other cities of the world.

2000-2001 by W. C. Egan

Music: Jolly Old St. Nicholas

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