As a child, have you ever woken up on Christmas morning with presents on beside your bed or under the Christmas tree? If you have, chances are that you have also been told a plump, jolly man with white beard and red clothes came on a sleigh pulled by reindeer in the dead of the night and left gifts for you.
You may have come to disbelieve in his existence as you grew up, but according to a recent discovery, Santa Claus was quite real… and also dead.
Turkish archaeologists claim to have found the resting place (it’s not the North Pole) of Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, the name he had when he was alive.
This tomb, reports Kareem Shaheen for The Guardian, is an intact temple and burial ground that was found below the St Nicholas church in Demre district’s Antalya province in Turkey. St Nicholas is believed to have been born and lived in Antalya as well.
The real work begins now, said Cemil Karabayram, the director of surveying and monuments in Antalya. “We will reach the ground and maybe we will find the untouched body of Saint Nicholas,” he said.
According to one version of events, however, St Nicholas’ remains were transferred to Bari in Italy, where the St Nicholas Basilica stands today. This was when Byzantine empire in present-day Turkey was invaded during the First Crusade, 700 years after the saint’s demise.
The archaeologists must, therefore, determine whether the tomb indeed holds the body of St Nicholas. They were able to locate the temple which contains the tomb using ground-penetrating radars. The challenge for the archaeologists, however, would be to access the tomb without damaging the stone reliefs and mosaics which need to be preserved.
The legend of Santa Claus
St Nicholas was native of Myra (now known as Demre) and a bishop. The 4th century saint was known for giving gifts to the poor.
As it turns out, Nicholas bore little resemblance to the red-cheeked and round-bellied Santa we know today. In fact, he “developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the "Great Persecution," when Bibles were put to the torch and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution,” writes Brian Handwerk for National Geographic.
Nicholas reputation rose because he was the patron of many groups. Around 1200 AD, he earned a name for himself as the patron of children and gift-bringer owing to two stories. In the first, he brought bags of gold to a father of three girls. This wealth could be used as dowry and the girls were saved from a life of prostitution.
In the second story, Nicholas apparently resurrected three boys who had been murdered by an innkeeper. “That's one of the things that made him the patron saint of children,” says Gerry Bowler, the author of Santa Claus: A Biography.
Over the next few hundred years, St Nicholas took on the characteristics of other European deities which gave him the white beard and the power of flight. However, he fell out of favour in northern Europe after the Protestant Reformation. This temporarily led to him being made into a scary gift carrier sidekick of baby Jesus, who became the bringer of gifts.
In Netherlands though, St Nicholas’ reputation as the bringer of gifts did not suffer. The Dutch then brought ‘Sinterklaas’ to the US where he eventually became ‘Santa Claus’. By 1840s, according to reports in History.com, American newspapers started creating separate sections for holiday advertisements, featuring images of the rosy-cheeked, and jolly Santa Claus.