STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This week before Christmas provides an opportunity for one of our correspondents. You know his work from the wars in Iraq or Lebanon. Today, NPR's Ivan Watson is in pursuit of Santa Claus. The legend of Santa Claus grew from stories about a 4th century archbishop name Nicholas, and Ivan found his town in what is now Turkey.
IVAN WATSON: St. Nicholas's hometown is a small, sun-drenched farming community lined with palm trees and orange groves, located just walking distance from the Mediterranean Sea.
(Soundbite of waves)
WATSON: The town is called Demre. It has adopted the image of Santa Claus as its symbol. Santa's jolly, bearded face now smiles at you from restaurants, trashcans, and the entrance to town hall.
Demre is populated mostly by Muslims who do not celebrate Christmas. The Christmas kitsch here is the local government's response to the recent re-discovery of Demre's ancient Christian roots.
In a small park at one end of town sits the 8th century Church of St. 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 turnstiles at the entrance to the church museum.
(Soundbite of turnstile)
Unidentified Woman: Please pass...
WATSON: 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.
(Soundbite of meowing cats)
WATSON: St. 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 4th century, Nicholas was the archbishop of Myra, the Byzantine name for Demre. Legend has it 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.
Among the handful of visitors at the church today were two Dutch tourists named Erik and Yenicka Daisha(ph). They say that in Holland, celebration of the December 6th feast day of St. Nicholas, or Sinter Klaas, rivals Christmas.
Mr. ERIK DAISHA (Dutch Tourist): We want to see it here, the legend, yeah. We say in Holland he comes in storms. He comes from Spain. But it's not true. He comes from Turkey.
WATSON: Meanwhile, here in St. Nicholas's hometown, the image of the beloved bishop is fast being replaced by that of the magical, secular Santa.
(Soundbite of traffic)
WATSON: The square outside the church is lined with souvenir shops, which mostly sell icons and crosses to busloads of Russian pilgrims in the summer. But last year, the town government replaced the bronze, Russian-made statue of St. 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 and hat, holding 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.
Ms. HAVA OZGUK (Souvenir Seller): (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: 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.
Turks call Santa Claus Noel Baba, that's what also what the children of Demre calls St. Nicholas, and they have a curious relationship with their town's most famous son.
At his father's souvenir shop, which sells icons of St. Nicholas, 11-year-old Fatih Arpaci says some of his friends now expect to receive gifts from Noel Baba at New Year's, but not Fatih.
Mr. FATIH ARPECI (Child): (Through translator) Why, he's a good man, but I don't believe he will bring gifts.
WATSON: Why not, we ask him.
Mr. ARPEJI: (Through translator) Because he is dead.
WATSON: Nearby, three little girls emerge from a new library, built in the shadow of the bright red Santa statue. Ten-year-old Denize Ozjolic(ph) says she does not know much about St. Nicholas, except that she likes him.
Ms. DENIZE OZJOLIC (Resident): (Through translator) Well, we don't know much. But I guess when he was alive, in winter, he used to bring gifts to the children.
WATSON: Nine-year-old Marva Essar holds a copy of the book "Cinderella," which she just checked out, along with a biography of the Prophet Mohammed, which she's bringing home to her mother.
Ms. MARVA ESSAR (Child): (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: I wish Noel Baba was still alive, Marva says, because we love him very much.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Demre, Turkey.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.