The real story of St. Nick—Noel Baba

  • Published
  • By Mehmet Birbiri
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
St. Nicholas is called Noel Baba in Turkey, but he is better known as Santa Claus. The popular myth is that he lives at the North Pole. Few people actually know St. Nicholas was born, lived and died in Turkey during the fourth century. He was the bishop of Myra, now Demre, near Antalya.

A Byzantine basilica in Demre honors his memory, and the tale of his generosity is unforgotten on these shores. People still tell of a bishop tip-toeing through the streets of old Myra to toss bags of gold through open windows or down chimneys.

He is said to have been the sole heir of a wealthy family and shared his money secretly with the less fortunate. One story told how he gave a nobleman three sacks of gold for his daughters' dowries because he was too poor. The first two bags, he tossed through an open window. But when he found the window tightly shut on his third visit, he went down the chimney instead, dropping the sack in a red sock that was drying on the mantelpiece.

Since then, it has become tradition to put oranges in Christmas stockings to symbolize the sacks of gold. Also, the three golden balls that pawn shops use as their symbol originated from this story.

After St. Nicholas died in 323, his priests buried him in an elaborate marble sarcophagus that they periodically filled with fragrant oil. The oil dripped through cavities in the sarcophagus, and the priests established a lucrative business selling vials of it to pilgrims who believed the oil had miraculous powers.

The St. Nicholas Church was built in the fifth century in his memory, and is one of the oldest in Turkey. Tales of St. Nicholas spread westward and in April 1087 merchants from Bari, Italy, ransacked the saint's grave and took his bones to Italy believing they would bring them wealth. Based on that event, Bari and Antalya were declared sister cities several years ago. A few remains from his sarcoghagus are on display in the Antalya museum.

In 1826 a Russian prince had the church restored by an architect. Instead of the cupola, a crosswise arch unrelated to Byzantine architecture was placed there and a belfry was added. The sarcoghagus found inside the western apse is believed to be that of St. Nicholas.

Every year on Dec. 6, the day St. Nicholas died, there's a service in St. Nicholas Church in Demre. Dec. 6 is also the first day of a weeklong festival held in Demre sponsored by the Santa Claus Foundation.

There's a bronze statue of St. Nicholas in Demre, which was erected in 1981, that looks very much like the typical Santa Claus with a long beard, a sack over his shoulder and a group of small children gathered around him.

If you have questions on Turkish history or customs contact Mehmet Birbiri in the 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs office at DSN 676-6279.