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Ho Ho Hold on a Minute! This Isn't the North Pole! Finding St. Nick in the Strangest Places!

February 23, 2000

Once upon a time, right here in Demre, Turkey, there lived a generous old bishop who loved children. Or so they say. This was around 330 CE (Common or Christian Era, also known as A.D.), when people still believed in miracles, and when Christianity was a new religion sweeping the area under the blessings of the Byzantine Empire. But even if you don't care much about Turkish or Christian history, you might care a lot about this old bishop, known as Saint Nicholas: a.k.a. Noel Baba, Criscringle, Father Christmas, Father Frost, Joulupukki, Kris Kringle, Pre Nol, Sabdiklos, Saint Nicolas, Sancte Claus, Sinter Klaas or Weinachtsmann!

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The ruins of this old basilica are being cared for today
That's right: here in Turkey, on the southern coast where there isn't even any snow, the Odyssey visited the home of the original Santa Claus! Well, OK, not his home, but the basilica that was built in his name, and the sarcophagus where he was buried!

It's not in very good condition these days, after centuries of war and earthquakes and all. There are still some beautiful mosaic floors, but even the sarcophagus has been broken. In 1087, a band of Italian "crusaders" broke it and stole some of St. Nick's own bones to take back to Bari, Italy, where a basilica was built in his name. Raid and loot one church for the glory of another-now that's the spirit! Not!!! But even though the site itself isn't all that exciting, just being there and learning the story of the original St. Nicholas was totally worth it.

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This is where they say St. Nicholas himself was entombed, until the Italians broke in and stole his bones!
According to Orthodox Christian history, St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (Demre's old name). He attended the first Christian ecumenical council at Nicaea (modern Iznik, Turkey) in the year 325, when all the Christian bishops got together to condemn paganism. But St. Nicholas's kindness, charity and miracles are what brought him sainthood.

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larger view
The spirit of giving is alive here, where the groundskeeper gave me an orange before taking my picture!

The story goes that when he was an infant, his mother only nursed him on Wednesdays and Fridays, leaving him to fast the remaining days (The Odyssey World Trek does not recommend starving infants in the hopes of sainthood!) Once he became bishop, he prayed hard enough to stop a huge storm at sea and save three drowning sailors. His father left him a fortune, which he gave out anonymously to children and to poor girls who couldn't afford their dowries in order to get married. He would throw gifts through windows or down the chimney. (The Odyssey World Trek does not recommend throwing bags of gold through open windows-but we do have a mailing address, and will accept bags of gold postage due!) This kindly man even grabbed the sword of an executioner to save the life of a political prisoner, and brought several children back to life after they'd been killed!


sarcophagus - a stone coffin
ecumenical - belonging to the whole Christian Church
paganism - the beliefs of some who are not Christian, Jewish or Muslim
anonymously - without any name acknowledged
dowry - the money, goods or estate a woman brings to her husband at marriage
engagements - periods of employment
Teutonic - relating to an ancient tribe of Germans
skepticism - doubt or disbelief
comprehensible - capable of being understood
abound - are plentiful
extinguish - put out
conceived - think of
supernal - heavenly, celestial or divine
abiding - enduring, continuing without change
hypothesized - assumed and tried to prove
contracted - shrunk in size
quantum - large or bulky

What a guy! That's why he's the patron saint of children, virgins and sailors, as well as a patron saint in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Sicily and Switzerland. He must have been busy! The day he died, December 6, 343, was originally celebrated as St. Nicholas day, and was the traditional day for exchanging gifts.

So how did our current Santa Claus come out of all that? And Christmas? The North Pole? Flying reindeer? That dorky red suit? Mrs. Claus?!

Stories, like all traditions, change over time. In the 1600s, exchanging gifts, lighting Christmas candles, singing Christmas carols-or even mentioning the name "St. Nicholas" -- were made illegal in the United States by the Puritans. Bummer! Soon, though, Dutch immigrants brought with them the story of "Sinter Klaas," and those poo-poo Puritans couldn't stop them. You can't keep a good story down, you know!

1897: Francis P. Church, Editor of the New York Sun, wrote an editorial in response to a letter from eight year-old Virginia O'Hanlon. Virginia had written the paper asking whether there really was a Santa Claus. Church's editorial became known as the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" letter. Here are both letters:

Dear Editor, I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in the Sun, it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus? -- Virginia O'Hanlon

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to have men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive of or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

But then, in the 19th century, after the Reformation, the story of Christkindlein, the Christ child who brought gifts to children in secret on Christmas and who traveled around with a dwarf-like dude named Pelznickel (a.k.a. Belsnickle or Black Peter), was being encouraged by German Protestants. Since St. Nick was still so popular, the stories of him, the dwarf and the Christ child eventually were combined, and "Christkindlein" became Kris Kringle.

In the United States, Santa first became popular in 1809, when Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas. In his History of New York, under the alias Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving described St. Nicholas arriving in New York on horseback. But it wasn't until a dentist named Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (a.k.a. "The Night Before Christmas") that modern-day Santa emerged, with his red suit, jolly laugh, pot belly, eight flying reindeer and magical winks and nods that kids love so much.

From there on out, Santa Claus took on a life of his own, with Rudolf's story, department store engagements and a cute little wife filling out the picture. Has the spirit of Saint Nicholas been lost? Have commercialization and greed taken over the spirit of charity, gift-giving and love for children?

For that matter, did Saint Nicholas even exist? Many people believe that Bishop Nicholas himself is only a myth. In 1969, Pope Paul VI ordered the Feast of Saint Nicholas dropped from the official Roman Catholic calendar, because there was so little proof of his existence. I wonder whose bones those Italians stole then?

When Christianity came to pagan countries like Turkey, the stories of many gods and goddesses were changed into those of human Christian saints. Some people believe that St. Nicholas was a Christianized version of various pagan sea gods -- the Greek god Poseidon, the Roman god Neptune and the Teutonic god Hold Nickar (where 'Old Nick' comes from). Many temples of Poseidon became shrines of St. Nicholas, for example. St. Nicholas also adopted some of the qualities of "The Grandmother" Befana from Italy, who filled children's stockings with gifts. Her shrine at Bari became a shrine to St. Nicholas, where somebody's bones ended up!

Santa the Envy of Physicists around the World! If Santa really does exist, and visits 800 million homes every Christmas Eve, how fast does he have to travel? Can he do it? Well, assuming he has between 8 p.m., when the children go to bed in the first time zone (at the International Date Line) and 6 a.m., when they wake up in the last time zone, then Santa really has 34 hours to deliver all of his presents. Still, that's 392,157 houses a minute, or 6,536 houses per second-so Santa's speed must approach the speed of light!

As Einstein hypothesized, and modern physics is now proving, moving near the speed of light has certain effects on things. For instance: at that speed, the friction created with the atmosphere would burn him up! Maybe Mrs. Claus knitted protective shielding for him and his reindeer.

Secondly, due to something known as the Doppler shift, the color of Rudolph's nose will change, depending on how fast he's moving. As he accelerates off the rooftop, his nose will turn yellow, then green, then blue, then violet: and then it will hit the ultraviolet range and become invisible! (The Doppler shift is also how astronomers can tell the speed at which stars and galaxies are moving in reference to the Earth.)

If you've ever wondered why Santa never seems to age, though, you know that time moves much more slowly at the speed of light!

The biggest problem Santa Claus faces in traveling at the speed of light is whether he'll be able to fit down chimneys! As Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation predicts, the faster Santa moves, the bigger his mass becomes. Now if you were watching Santa arrive, it would seem to you that, even though he's heavier, he has contracted and become very thin. The problem is, of course, that, from Santa's frame of reference, it's the chimney that has contracted, and there is no way he'll fit!

If you want to see how Santa gets into the chimney, just check out rnold Pompos & Sharon Butler, quantum dilemma!

My visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth were interesting, but basically I was a tourist. This stop, though, was really a pilgrimage to me. Some would say that proves the true meaning of Christmas has been lost. But then again, maybe not. If Christmas is only about celebrating the birthday of one man, for one day, then yes, perhaps it has. But if Christmas is about celebrating what that one man represented -- the generosity of human spirit, showing kindness to others and the spirit of love and charity that lasts all year-then honoring St. Nicholas, whether he is "real" or not, certainly maintains the meaning of the holiday. And that, I hope, will never be lost!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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