CHRISTMAS IN TURKEY; A VISIT TO ST. NICHOLAS

 

Twas the night before Christmas, and rather than wait for St. Nicholas to visit us, my husband, son and I were visiting him instead - in a warm, dusty town called Demre on Turkey's southern shore.

Demre is the site of the ancient city of Myra, once a prosperous port in Lycia, a province in Asia minor that was settled by Greeks. According to tradition and the church, the original St. Nicholas was bishop of Myra in the fourth century. His church and sarcophagus are still there, though his bones have been scattered from France to Flushing. We spent last Christmas Eve at the church of this holy man renowned for selfless charity centuries before he was transformed by legend, custom and commerce into the overgrown elf called Santa Claus.

We left Antalya, Turkey's major Mediterranean resort, on the morning of December 24 in a rented Anadol, a Turkish Ford. The coastal road to Finike the largest town near Demre, is incomplete, so we had to take a 120-mile detour inland through the mountains.

Isolated Moslem villages were scattered wherever the land was arable. In the fields, the men wore the caps with which they outwitted Ataturk's edict against the fez; the women were in baggy pants, their faces concealed by the shawls that have replaced the veil in rural Turkey.

About 20 miles from Finike it was still cold enough in the mountains for the road to be frosted. Then we passed through a forest and began to descend rapidly. As we neared the coast, we could see the oranges, bananas, figs and olives that grow there all year long.

About noon, we checked into a small hotel on the beach in Finike, and then set out for our visit to St. Nicholas. There are no signs to Demre, but any man or child will point the way: 10 miles on a rocky, rutted road that winds precariously along the shore of the deep blue Mediterranean, always threatening to tip you in. Eventually, the road heads inland and abruptly there is a gas station. You have reached the outskirts of Demre.

We drove slowly through the town, past the inevitable shop where only men sat drinking small glasses of bitter tea. Beside us a woman with a young boy harnessed to her back led a camel. Since both hands held the reins, she kept her face covered by clenching her shawl between her teeth. Behind the camel strolled her husband, his hands clasped thoughtfully behind him.

Myra was an important city, but Demre is no more than a tight cluster of one and two-story shops and buildings which service the local farmers. Artisans line both sides of the main street. At the first and only intersection we asked for directions and were pointed left. A very short distance down the road there is a hand-painted wooden sign that reads, "Saint Nicholas."

The first thing you see is barbed wire; a fence has been put up to keep looters out, although the gate is wide open, and there is very little left to loot. Within the barbed wire enclosure are a caretaker's cottage and a small shed. Down a steep incline, some 15 or 20 feet below ground level, stands Hagios Nikolaos, the Church of St. Nicholas.

In the centuries since Nicholas served as bishop here, silt carried down from the mountains buried the city of Myra and formed a new coastline. The church was buried along with the city and the work of digging out the church is not yet complete. In the 19th century the Czarist Russians, for whom Nicholas was a patron saint, came to Demre to excavate and restore the church. Eventually the Turks took over the task. We were told that a team of archeologists from the University of Ankara works at St. Nicholas intermittently; the problem is not lack of interest but a shortage of funds. There is also competition from more exciting digs. Within walking distance of the church are a Roman theater and an extraordinary Lycian necropolis with tombs carved directly into the face of a cliff.

Part of the left side of the church of St. Nicholas is still buried under silt, and the original entrance is inaccessible. Access now is down the incline, past fallen columns and other archeological rubble, through an arch in the right wall. Inside, the church looks as though it was accreted rather than built; one can only guess what it might have looked like in the fourth century.

The original roof is gone except for one small dome, and a new brick roof covers most of the building. It would appear that the original church had a lofty nave, or center aisle, flanked by two side aisles. There were later additions to both sides of the church which have left it architecturally and esthetically unbalanced.

The mosaic tiles on the floor are broken, filthy or missing; the frescoes that remain on the walls arc faded and decayed; interior columns and capitals lie where they have fallen. The altar is a plinth with a tall stone mounted atop it. Behind the altar is a series of 10 steps which rise in a semi-circle from the floor to the curved wall, giving the impression of a miniature amphitheater, although the steps are so narrow it is difficult to imagine anyone sitting on them.

After we had prowled around the church for a while, the caretaker or guide entered. In three trips to Turkey we have found bilingual and multilingual Turks in the most remote areas, but at the major Christian shrine in Anatolia the guide speaks only Turkish.

Anxious to help, however, he took us to the sarcophagus which we had already recognized as the one usually identified as the original tomb of St. Nicholas. The guide pointed to it and spoke the only English he knew, "Senta Klos."

Though as bishop of Myra, Nicholas was undoubtedly buried in the church, no one knows exactly where. This particular sarcophagus has been chosen because it has a gaping hole in its side, and when men from Bari stopped at Myra in 1087 to steal St. Nicholas's body they smashed open his tomb. However, an early account suggests the tomb the Barians broke into was beneath the floor of the church and that they shattered the lid "to dust." The sarcophagus identified as St. Nicholas's is not only above ground but has been smashed in at the side rather than the top. In fact it is the only sarcophagus in the church that still has a lid, and the lid adds to the mystery of who was buried within because it has two figures on it, not one. The head of the larger figure rests on a pillow and the head of the smaller figure seems to rest on the shoulder of the larger one. Both faces have been chipped away.

The Venetians sailed to Myra in 1116 and not only brought back what they said were the true bones of St. Nicholas but the body of his uncle as well. When the Russians arrived centuries later to restore the church, they looted another sacrophagus and sent the bones to St. Petersburg as the real St. Nicholas. The French claim a part of one of his fingers, and the Turks not to be outdone on their own territory, have a reliquary with some of St. Nicholas's bones in their new museum in Antalya. In 1972, in an ecumenical gesture, the Archbishop of Bari presented a few fragments from the skull in Bari to the Greek Orthodox community in America. Some of these fragments were placed in a reliquary in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas at 196th Street and Northern Boulevard in Flushing, N.Y.; the rest are in a reliquary in the Greek Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity at 319 East 74th Street in Manhattan.

We counted six sarcophagi in the church at Demre, plus one in the courtyard. It seems likely that as each raiding party arrived, it cracked open another sarcophagus and claimed St. Nicholas's bones. Who was correct and which tomb was his is impossible to say.

After showing us the smashed sarcophagus, the guide led us to a steep staircase on the left side of the church. At the top of the stairs he unlocked a door and we walked onto a balcony within the church that is being used for storage. A Roman frieze was propped against the wall. A bell with a Greek inscription dated 1876 rested atop a small Byzantine sarcophagus.

Sitting on the ledge of the balcony was a skull. I pointed to it. "Senta Klos," said the guide helpfully. We examined the next item on the ledge, a pile of broken dishes in the pattern known as English willow, a pattern we recognized instantly. Years ago every Jewish household had two sets: red pattern for meat, blue for dairy. These were blue for dairy. I pointed to the dishes. "Senta Klos," said the guide.

We went back down to the nave of the church. It was dim and desolate. Carved into the walls in Greek are graffiti dating back to 1870. On the floor were orange peels, chicken feathers, cigarette butts, film boxes, and other signs of indifference and neglect.

Centuries ago people came here to worship St. Nicholas; now they go to Macy's to see Santa Claus. Yet there is a link.

Nicholas was born in Patara, another important Lycian port, about the year 270 or 280. Although many miracles would be attributed to him, his most enduring deed was done before he became holy; when he was merely good.

His parents died in a plague, leaving Nicholas a very wealthy young man. He felt he should give his money to the needy, but he also felt it should be done anonymously. In Patara lived an impoverished nobleman who, unable to provide dowries for his three daughters, had decided to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas was horrified. One night he came silently to the nobleman's house and tossed some gold wrapped in a cloth through the window. The grateful father used the gold to marry off his eldest daughter. Nicholas came a second night and threw in another bag of gold, which become the dowry for the second daughter. By this time the father wondered who his mysterious benefactor was. Every night he waited and when the third bag of gold came through the window he rushed outside and saw Nicholas.

Later, Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to Palestine. When he returned, he settled in Myra, where he was bishop until he died around the year 350. In the centuries after his death his fame spread from Lycia through Byzantium and then into Europe. He was taken as patron by such disparate groups as virgins (the three bags of gold), thieves (because he was imprisoned by Diocletian), students (for restoring to life three students who had been murdered, dismembered and pickled in brine), and sailors (for calming seas in storms). Possibly because Nicholas was bishop in a major port, sailors often prayed to him and those who survived brought word of his miracles wherever they traveled.

The church at Myra became a famous shrine and the object of many pilgrimages, and thousands of other churches were dedicated to St. Nicholas. In much of Europe the Christmas celebration was a month-long festival beginning with St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 and ending on Jan. 6 with Epiphany, which marks the visit of the three wise men. It was on Dec. 5, St. Nicholas Eve, rather than on Christmas Eve, that many European children hung up their stockings.

The Reformation attempted to curtail the cult of saints, and the giving of gifts was moved to Christmas Eve because the Protestants said that all good things came from the Christ child, the Christkind or Christkindel. But whatever St. Nicholas lost in worship he gained in folklore, and Christkindel somehow became Kris Kringle, another name for St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas probably came to America with the first Dutch colonists, but Washington Irving's tales of his being patron saint of New Amsterdam and the object of public celebrations are dismissed by scholars as spoofs. In the course of centuries the name of St. Nicholas has been twisted by many tongues into such variations as Santiklos, Samiklaus and Sinterklaes. In America it found its final distortion as Santa Claus.

Clement Moore's "The Visit of St. Nicholas" has no trace of the Anatolian ascetic but does distill many elements of European folklore. Illustrator Thomas Nast took Moore's description of St. Nicholas and created the Santa Claus we know today. The jolly old man immediately caught on, because he filled the need of commerce for a Christmas symbol -someone who could push the merchandise. St. Nicholas was benevolent but divine; Santa Claus is benevolent but secular. Yet in his own way Santa Claus continues the spirit of anonymous giving embodied by St. Nicholas 16 centuries ago.

It was evening when we left the church of St. Nicholas - Christmas Eve. Millions of children were waiting for Santa Claus to bring them gifts, joy and laughter. In Demre, we had been the only visitors to the church. The guide locked the barbed wire gate behind us and, except for the distant sound of a muezzin calling the Moslems to prayer, the church of St. Nicholas was as silent as his empty tomb.

 

Lord, we pray, that the celebration

Of the birth of Your only-begotten

Son may ease our struggles;

Whose heavenly mystery is our

Food and drink.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
March 1975
pp. 3-5

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