December 15, 2000

In Search of the Real Santa Claus

by Albert Simonson

I'm not so sure about reality, and it's all my big sister's fault. She had a certain smartypants attitude. The worst part is that she was usually right.

In the total innocence of childhood, I asked her who Santa Claus really was. "He's a mispronunciation," she said. "Like when drunken crusaders would try to say Saint Nicholas. She sloshed her tongue like a drunk as she said it. With smuggest satisfaction she added, "And basically, a filament of your imagination." But to me, Santa was really real. My sister has a lot to answer for.

I have a special compartment in my mind where I keep all the mean things she ever said, for further review. Sometimes this compartment erupts, like when I was recently in Turkey. It was time for a reality check.

About two hours down the coast from Antalya's airport is the old town of Kale, meaning "castle" in Turkish. Before the Turks, it was called Myra, its ancient name. In the fourth century, the bishop of Myra was none other than St. Nicholas.

It's a pretty coast, not like the North Pole at all. More like California, really. The pine-clad Taurus Mountains sweep down to rocky headlands and sandy coves by the sparkling azure sea. In winter, the 10,000-foot mountains have snow. There are no reindeer, but you might hire a donkey taxi to take you to Saint Nick's bunker-like church, where his quite unjolly tomb is neglected in this now-Muslim country.

Those who fancy weird tombs or playing dead will thrill to the cliffside, rock-hewn tombs of this town, which look like 3-story church façades. Propping yourself up like a mummy, you can restfully gaze out over a great Roman theater, or the sea. It's a great place for an offbeat Christmas.

A millennium ago, Italian pirates swiped Nick's body as a present for Bari on the heel of Italy. This increased his popularity and fame in the west and accounts for English names like Nichols and Collins. Italy was where the action was, in those days.

You can get a postcard to see how he looked, but I have to tell you he didn't look anything like our American version which is largely based on Coca Cola ads from 1934. He has a beard all right, but neatly trimmed. Otherwise, he has a kind of serious eastern look. The postcard shows how he appears on a gilded lid of a Byzantine chest in Antalya's museum. I sure hope this is not a big disappointment to you.

Not all is lost, however. St. Nick, a.k.a. Santa Claus, was a decent chap, by all accounts. His prayers saved offshore sailors by calming the Mediterranean and he restored lots of dead kids to life. He even saved three impoverished girls of Patara, his birthplace, from a life of flooziness, by giving each a purse of gold to serve as dowry. Finding their door locked, he clambered up on the roof and dropped the purses through the chimney. The girls had hung their stockings to dry under the chimney, and the purses plopped right into their stockings, bringing them mirth and cheer. Only the brothel-master was saddened by this unexpected deprivation. Thus he became the patron saint of pawnbrokers who honor him with a traditional three-ball sign outside their shops, a sign of succor in times of need.

Saint Nick has always been a little misunderstood or misinterpreted, even in his own time. The Emperor Diocletian, who had a thing about Christians, had him locked up and even tortured.

Nevertheless, Saint Nick lived a long time after that, until the year 342, and died a good death, or, you might say in a larger sense, never died at all. Instead, he became a world class celebrity, upstaging even Diocletian on the stage of eternity.

Transported to gloomy winters in northern Europe, Saint Nick had to dress for the cold and get a sleigh. My own Christmases in New York were all screwed up, however, because we didn't have a chimney and I couldn't figure out how Santa would get in. Besides, my parents were Swedish so I only got to hang skinny little bogus Swedish Santas on the tree. Those Swedish Santas were nasty selfish woodland trolls who would let your chickens loose if you didn't leave some porridge on the steps for them. With cinnamon topping. No Coca-Cola, thank you.

The Germans next door used to send us cards about "Christkindl" which sounded weird until advertisers started to spell it "Chris Kringle." "Kindl" means little child.

The Dutch brought a fondness for the mispronounced "Sinter Klaes" to New Amsterdam, now New York, where he started to put on weight and slowly became the patron saint of holiday shopping. His official church feast day was December 6, conveniently in the shopping season. Some Germans and Dutch still arrange gifts on that day to good boys and girls. But the flip side of the coin is that bad boys and girls might get a good beating from the saint's sidekick, Rupert.

In any case, Saint Nick, by whatever name, still lives in the hearts and imaginations of children everywhere, transcending tinpot tyrants like Diocletian, and now going beyond Christian culture to the orient, beyond even the mean things that older kids say to prick the bubble of joy that little kids feel.

As for me, ho, ho, I feel a lot better now, knowing Santa is really real, just as real as those relics of his body in the Santa Nicola basilica in Bari. Top-drawer relics were always hot items on Italian wish lists.

On the other hand, you know the old saying about Italian relics - "There are enough relics of the true cross in Italy to rebuild its navy."

Now I wonder. . .you don't suppose, do you. . .that there could be any doubt about those relics of Saint Nick. . .?

Mr. Simonson is a retired research engineer and a member of the Mountain Empire Historical Society.

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