St Nicholas, as well as being more familiar nowadays as Father Christmas, was historically the patron saint of children and sailors, probably because both are completely dependent on external forces for their survival. So, patron saint of the vulnerable, probably. Anyway, he’s buried in the picturesque little coastal town of Demre on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, not far from the spectacular royal rock-cut tombs of Myra. His monastery is three metres below ground level slap in the middle of the market area and was only discovered in 1956.
Nick died on December 6, 343 and was buried in an old Lycian tomb that dated to Roman times, and a church was built around him. In 1087 pirates looted the church and took most of his bones off to Bari in Italy, but those they missed were collected into a wooden box along with an icon, and these rather sad relics can today be seen in the Antalya Archaeological Museum.
A popular tale from the 6th century concerning St Nicholas is that he appeared in a dream of the Emperor Constantine and saved three sailors from the death penalty.
On the pretentious and arty side, the present day church dates from the 7th century and reflects a transition between early basilica architecture and the Greek Orthodox close cross style that took over from the early Middle Ages of the Byzantine era.
The big tale about St Nicholas is that he overheard a conversation by three sisters about how they couldn’t get married because their dowries were crap. He anonymously brought a bag of gold for the first sister on December 25th, throwing it through the window into their room and the following year on the same day did the same for the second sister. The year after that it was so cold that the window was bolted shut and so he dropped his bag of gold down the chimney for the third sister.
Clearly discovering the joys of giving, every December 25th he left anonymously-donated gifts of snacks, apples and toys for the poor of Myra and this became the talk of the town. The people came up with a sketch of this enigma, depicting the anonymous do-gooder as an old man with a white beard and wearing a red coat, red boots and a red hood, sitting on a sleigh that was pulled by a pair of reindeer. They decided that every December 25th he came down the local Beydaglari Mountains to help the poor people get through the festive season.
It’s a fair cop
St Nick eventually got nicked by the town guard, carrying a sack and with his face covered. They found a stash of golden apples in the bag, along with an assortment of toys, clothing and food. When they took him in for questioning all was of course revealed. The townsfolk decided to call him Father Christmas or Santa Claus in the local lingo and the rest is history.
It’s all perfectly true, damn your cynical eyes!