An International fight over the bones of Santa Claus

by Piero Castellano, from Ahval

Santa Claus hit international headlines early this Christmas when Turkish officials announced they had found his bones, leading to a tug of war with the town of Bari in Italy which says it has the remains of St. Nicholas.

A Turkish official announced in October the bones of St. Nicholas, a revered Christian bishop considered the inspiration for Santa Claus, could still be in their original burial place in a church in Demre, the ancient city of Myra, in southern Turkey.

St. Nicholas, given to donating anonymously to young people in need, died in 343 AD but his bones are widely accepted to be in Bari, in southern Italy, where raiders took them in 1087 after looting the church in Myra.

Tomb of St Nicholas
The tomb of St. Nicholas, Demre
Photo: JMR, used by permission

Unsurprisingly, the announcement that the bones were still in Turkey triggered a furious reaction in Bari, where St. Nicholas is venerated as the patron saint of the city.

Barians dismissed the news as an attempt to degrade the status of their holy relics after previous Turkish calls for the return of the saint’s bones had fallen on deaf ears.

Father Gerardo Cioffari, a Dominican priest who founded the Centro Studi Nicolaiani in Bari and one of the top experts in the saint’s history, emphasised that his tomb in Bari was a religious shrine.

"The relics in the basilica in Bari can be venerated by the faithful from all over the world. Anyone can pray at St. Nicholas’ grave." The crypt in Bari is also open to liturgies for non-Catholics, he said. "Christian churches recognising the Eucharist, such as the Orthodox, Armenian and Egyptian Coptic churches do celebrate mass in the crypt."

Basilica of St. Nicholas, Bari
Photo: Basilica di San Nicola, used by permission

The Orthodox mass is also occasionally celebrated in the ruined remains of St. Nicholas’ church in Demre, the last time was on Dec. 6, the anniversary of his death.

But Father Gerardo remembers better times. "We had excellent relations with Turkey and I have been there three times for conferences about St. Nicholas. I prayed in his church side by side with Muslim worshippers." But since the millennium things had changed, he said. "Every year, nearing the December celebration, there were problems with the Turks claiming the restitution of the relics, and relations cooled down."

The site was renamed the "Father Christmas Museum", instead of "St. Nicholas Church" and the emphasis was steered towards the fictional, international figure of Santa Claus.

Nearly all the international media coverage of the discovery of St. Nicholas’ bones were sourced to a report in Turkey’s English-language newspaper Hürriyet Daily News, which appears to be a redacted and poor translation of another article from its Turkish-language sister publication.

In the original Turkish article, the Antalya Director of Surveying and Monuments Cemil Karabayram reports the findings of the geo-radar survey following his announcement in August that his team was looking for the final resting place of St. Nicholas.

The triumphalist tone of the English-language Hürriyet article is tempered with more caution in the original statements.

Professor Sema Dogan, of Hacettepe University Faculty of Art History and director of excavations in Demre, redirected questions related to the geo-radar surveys in and around St. Nicholas church to Karabayram. Emails to Karabayram and to the Directorate of Surveying and Monuments of Antalya went unanswered.

Reactions from international scholars are cautious and many have been critical of the press coverage.

"It is very preliminary to conjecture as to what may have been found in the church in Demre," cautioned Carol Myers, curator of the "Saint Nicholas Center," a website showcasing studies and traditions about the ancient bishop of Myra. She said it was best to wait for the work of archaeologists, but warned: "A great deal would have to happen before the Demre discovery could be confirmed as a tomb of St. Nicholas, and such a thing simply may not be possible. A skeleton, dated to his time and identified as a bishop would have to be found."

And still it is unlikely that this could positively undermine Bari’s claim. "There is detailed primary material concerning the bones being taken to Bari. The tradition is so strong and well-documented with the current pilgrimage sites so well established, that should such a tomb actually be confirmed I would expect the effect to be negligible," she said.

Turkish authorities have meanwhile not disguised their hope that St. Nicholas could boost tourism.

"If results are confirmed, tourism in Antalya will increase," Hürriyet quoted Karabayram as saying. "If our expectations are met, there will be no vacancies in Demre."

Uncharacteristically for Turkey’s coastal region, there are only a handful of hotels and rental apartments available to tourists in Demre. Agriculture still dominates the local economy.

Meanwhile 50 km to the west, the lively seaside resort of Kas is packed with Western and Russian tourists and 80 km to the east, Olympos is a favourite destination for those who love the outdoors. Demre is indeed the Cinderella of what is known as "the Turquoise Coast." The long, unspoilt beach stretching from the ancient port-town of Andriake to a lagoon is deserted even in high season.

But things are set to change. The new Kas airport, expected to bring in five million tourists a year, is planned near Demre and new hotels are already under construction. A new, typically oversized fast road from Antalya is cutting through mountains and bridging gorges along the famed Lycian Way. There are also plans to increase cruise ship tourism in the area.

The development plans are dividing locals and tourism entrepreneurs. An online petition against the airport in Kas has collected more than 20,000 signatures. Many argue that the plans would change the authentic character of the area and damage tourism, currently based on low numbers, low impact but high revenue activities, such as trekking, biking or cultural sightseeing.

St. Nicholas is virtually the only attraction in Demre appealing to international tourists and the discovery of a "new" tomb, even if controversial, fits well into plans of bringing in mass tourism.

Icons of St. Nicholas on sale in Demre
Photo: Piero Castellano

Father Gerardo said the pilgrims flocking to the tomb of St. Nicholas had little impact on Bari's economy.

"Pilgrims only see him as a Christian saint and come to pray. Cruise tourists visit the majestic Romanesque basilica for its art, nobody comes for Santa Claus," he said.

Carol Myers agreed. "The Russian pilgrims come to Demre because they deeply venerate Bishop St. Nicholas, the most popular saint in Russia. I would be surprised if they would have any interest at all in Western Santa Claus."

Santa Claus stirs controversy in Turkey too. While secular Turks decorate their homes and enjoy shopping in malls resounding with Christmas music, conservatives contest what they perceive as a cultural colonisation. Every year Turkey sees bizarre protests, such as staged "executions" of Santa Claus.

It is hard to imagine Western parents taking their children to visit Turkey to see "the tomb of Santa Claus ." Only an evil Grinch could claim, like so many headlines did after Turkish announcement, that "Santa is dead."

Santa Claus himself begs to disagree: "Santa is not dead. Santa Claus is a thought that has taken on a human form from the example set forth by St. Nicholas" explains Phillip L. Wenz, a full time, professional Santa Claus, honoured with the "Spirit of Saint Nicholas award" in 2012. "The Spirit of St. Nicholas is an example to follow. Nicholas showed us a good way to live. He fed the hungry, freed the unjustly imprisoned, and cared for those in need. We may love and serve children of all ages and give hope, love and joy while not forgetting what the true meaning of Christmas is."

He lives, and he lives forever.

St. Nicholas statue, Demre
Photo: Piero Castellano

Who is he in his hometown?—The Four Faces of Nicholas
Church or Museum? Demre Today
Photos: St. Nicholas Church, Myra (Demre/Kale, Turkey)
Church of Saint Nicholas: Divine Liturgy in Demre
Myra in Lycia: The Church in Demre
Myra: Reflection on a first visit

"An international fight over the bones of Santa Claus" by Piero Castellano, Ahval, December 19, 2017. Used by permission.

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