St. Nick's Hometown Capitalizes on Santa Image

A Turkish woman passes in front of a Santa statue in the town square of Demre. i i

A Turkish woman passes in front of a controversial statue of Santa Claus, called Noel Baba in Turkish, in the town square of Demre. Last year, Russian diplomats criticized local Turkish officials, who replaced a bronze statue of a haloed Saint Nicholas, holding a Bible, with this more secular symbol of Christmas. Ivan Watson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson, NPR
A Turkish woman passes in front of a Santa statue in the town square of Demre.

A Turkish woman passes in front of a controversial statue of Santa Claus, called Noel Baba in Turkish, in the town square of Demre. Last year, Russian diplomats criticized local Turkish officials, who replaced a bronze statue of a haloed Saint Nicholas, holding a Bible, with this more secular symbol of Christmas.

Ivan Watson, NPR
Byzantine arches of the Church of Saint Nicholas i i

The 8th century Church of Saint Nicholas, featuring these Byzantine arches, was believed to house the remains of Saint Nicholas until 1087, when robbers took the relics to Italy, where they remain buried in another shrine to Saint Nicholas. Ivan Watson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Ivan Watson, NPR
Byzantine arches of the Church of Saint Nicholas

The 8th century Church of Saint Nicholas, featuring these Byzantine arches, was believed to house the remains of Saint Nicholas until 1087, when robbers took the relics to Italy, where they remain buried in another shrine to Saint Nicholas.

Ivan Watson, NPR

The image of Santa Claus, as millions of American boys and girls know him, is a relatively new one, perfected in the 1930s during an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola. In fact, the legend of Santa Claus, grew from stories about a 4th century archbishop named Nicholas, who lived in what is now modern-day Turkey.

Far from the North Pole, Saint Nicholas' hometown is a small sun-drenched farming community lined with palm trees and orange groves, located just walking distance from the Mediterranean Sea.

The town of Demre has adopted the image of Santa Claus as its symbol. Santa's jolly, bearded face now smiles at visitors from restaurants, trash cans and the entrance to town hall.

Demre is populated mostly by Muslims who do not celebrate Christmas. The Christmas kitch here is the local government's response to the recent rediscovery of Demre's ancient Christian roots.

In a small park at one end of town, sits the 8th century church of Saint Nicholas. Over the centuries, this byzantine structure of stone arches, columns and domes has sunk deep into a hillside. In the last two years, the Turkish state has worked to preserve the basilica, unearthing floor mosaics, restoring faded icons, and installing English-speaking turnstyles at the entrance to the church museum.

In the summer, thousands of visitors, mostly Russians and Germans, visit here daily. But in late December, the church is mostly empty, with the exception of a few cats.

Saint Nicholas is especially popular among Russian Orthodox Christians, who know him as the patron saint of travelers, sailors and of course, small children. In the fourth century, Nicholas was the archbishop of Myra, the Byzantine name for Demre. Legend has it that Nicholas once saved a poor man from selling his three young daughters into slavery, by secretly placing bags of gold in the man's house at night.

Meanwhile, in Saint Nicholas' home town, the image of the beloved bishop is fast being replaced by that of the magical, secular Santa. The square outside the church is lined with souvenir shops, which mostly sell icons and crosses to busloads of Russian pilgrims in the summer.

Last year, the town government replaced the bronze, Russian-made statue of Saint Nicholas, who watched over the square with a Bible in one hand and a halo over his head, with a statue of Santa, complete with red costume, a bell in one hand and a bag full of gifts in the other.

Russian diplomats criticized the move, as does souvenir seller Hava Ozguk.

"I think this one is unnecessary," she says, pointing at the red Santa. "Visitors like the old statue more than this one of Noel Baba [the name Turks use for Santa Claus]."

The children of Demre have a curious relationship with their town's most famous son. Fatih Arpaci, 11, says that, unlike some of his friends, he does not expect gifts from Noel Baba.

"Well, he's a good man, but I don't believe he would bring gifts."

Why not?

"Because he's dead," the boy says.

But Marva Essar, 9, says she wishes Noel Baba was still alive "because we love him very much."

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