A trip to the birthplace of the saint who inspired the legend of Santa Claus

A statue of Santa Claus outside a gift shop near St. Nicholas Church in Demre, Turkey.
A statue of Santa Claus outside a gift shop near St. Nicholas Church in Demre, Turkey. | The Christian Post/Leonardo Blair

ANTALYA, Turkey — When people in the West think of Santa Claus, some things that might come to mind are snow, reindeer, Christmas gifts, the North Pole and a portly man wearing a red and white suit. Very few people, if any at all, are likely to think about a pristine beach, grazing sheep and a man who saved young girls from sexual slavery.

St. Nicholas, the beloved clergyman who inspired the legend of Santa Claus, was known for his generosity and for helping to save young girls from sexual slavery. The patron saint of sailors, children, wolves, pawnbrokers, and other causes, started his life near a beach in the ancient city of Patara around what is now known as the small town of Gelemiş, Antalya Province in Turkey, where sheep are known to graze.

The weather around the area of the ruins of Patara is also nothing like the North Pole. The area enjoys a hot summer in a Mediterranean climate and is within walking distance from the 12-mile long Patara Beach.

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During a recent trip to Turkey hosted by representatives from GoTürkiye, Turkey’s official travel guide, The Christian Post visited the ruins of St. Nicholas’ birth city as well as the church named after him in Demre, formerly known as the ancient city of Myra, where he served as bishop.

And all of it felt sacred.

In Stories Behind Men of Faith, author Ace Collins reveals how St. Nicholas, who was born around 270 AD, spent his early years in Myra under the influence of his wealthy Christian parents. Unlike the portly figure of Santa Claus, as an adult, St. Nicholas was described as a “wisp of a man, slightly built, and probably little more than 5 feet tall.”

Even though as a very young boy, Nicholas was exposed to the sinful culture in Myra marked by “Roman gods, gambling, prostitution, and smuggling” his Christian parents inspired him by giving toward missionary work and helping to feed the poor. As a teenager, Nicholas lived out the example set by his parents by sharing his allowance with poor children.

One outstanding story about the boy who would eventually become a saint, says Nicholas helped a family friend in a major way after his business failed and he was forced to move to the slums outside Myra with his three daughters.

Things got so difficult, the friend began talks with brothel owners to sell his oldest daughter into sexual slavery. The night before the friend made that decision, Nicholas anonymously tossed the family a bag of gold through an open window in their home. His fame grew after that.

More than a thousand years after that, St. Nicholas remains a celebrated figure. In the Antalya Museum, an exhibit featuring the saint shares a version of the story of him saving his friend’s daughter from prostitution, along with artwork of Jesus and his disciples and other Christian artifacts.

For the people of Demre though, he doesn’t need to be couched in the legend of Santa Claus even though an imposing statue of the portly character sits outside the historic St. Nicholas Church in Demre where the saint’s desecrated sarcophagus is protected by plexiglass.

On a Dec. 6 visit to the monument, members of the Greek Orthodox Church celebrated his life in a service that moved even atheist visitors at the church, like Nikki Bullock.

Bullock is a native of the U.K. but she has been living on her boat in Turkey for the last four years after sailing there through the Mediterranean Sea.

Patara Beach in Antalya Province,Turkey is a located near the ancient Lycian city of Patara.
Patara Beach in Antalya Province,Turkey is a located near the ancient Lycian city of Patara. | The Christian Post/Leonardo Blair

In an interview with CP, she expressed how pleasantly surprised she was by the celebration of the saint in a country where 99% of the country is Muslim. Many Christian tourists honored St. Nicholas inside the church even as The Adhan — the Islamic call to prayer — was made several times outside the church.

“It was St. Nicholas who started Father Christmas,” Bullock said. “His tomb is around there. It’s quite a religious center, quite important, especially in a Muslim country.”

Priests at the service displayed a large cross and carried fragments of the saint's bones in a box.

Welcoming what she sees as increased religious freedom in a country that is officially secular, Bullock called Turkey “an absolutely stunning place” that more people should visit, especially to see the wealth of ancient Christian ruins.

She explained that it was only in recent years that authorities allowed services to be held inside St. Nicholas Church and she wasn’t sure if enough Christians are aware that services are even being held there.

“It’s very rare in Turkey that you get somewhere where they allow the Christian faith,” she said. “They (the general public) don’t know about this church. … If they knew, and it was advertised, a lot more people would have showed up.”

For more information on visiting Turkey, check out

Contact: Follow Leonardo Blair on Twitter: @leoblair Follow Leonardo Blair on Facebook: LeoBlairChristianPost

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