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Saint Nicholas’ Tomb Unearthed in Turkey

Saint Nicholas Santa Claus
The Saint Nicholas Church, where the tomb of Santa Claus was discovered, is located in the ancient city of Myra. Credit: Dosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikipedia

The tomb of Saint Nicholas, also known as “Santa Claus,” and the floor on which he walked, inside the St. Nicholas Church in the town of Myra in today’s southern Turkey have recently been unearthed by archeologists.

Living between 270 and 343, Saint Nicholas, was an early Christian bishop during the time of the Roman Empire. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as “Nicholas the Wonderworker.”

The Church of St. Nicholas, located in Myra, which was renamed by Turkey as Demre in 2005, was built in 520 on the foundations of an older Christian church where Saint Nicholas served as a bishop and was buried.

“The first church was submerged with the rise of the Mediterranean Sea, and some centuries later, a new church was built above,” Osman Eravsar, the head of the provincial cultural heritage preservation board in Antalya, told Demirören News Agency.

“Now we have reached the remains of the first church and the floor on which Saint Nicholas stepped,” he noted. “The tiling of the floor of the first church, on which Saint Nicholas walked, has been unearthed.”

Saint Nicholas’s legend of gift-giving gave rise to Santa Claus

Very little is known about Saint Nicholas, but his legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of “Santa Claus” named after him.

Serving as Bishop of Myra, he was also known as a participant in the seminal Council of Nicaea in the year 325 during which the adoption of the Nicene Creed took place. The Creed forms the basis of the belief system of Christians.

Saint Nicholas Santa Claus
Icon of St. Nicholas, from whom the figure of Santa Claus is derived. Credit: Public domain

He was later cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian but was released after the accession of Constantine.

Reported at the time to have spoken out vociferously against the Arians, or those who believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God begotten by God the Father. The difference is that the Son of God did not always exist but was begotten within time by God the Father. Therefore, Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father. An anecdote that has survived through the millennia says that Nicholas either slapped the face of or boxed the ears of one of his ideological opponents.

Whether or not this is true, another action of his, much more generous, was recorded as well. A poor family in Myra with many daughters was known to have fallen on hard times— which were so dire, in fact, that the father was considering selling one of his daughters into slavery just so the others could survive.

To save her from such a horrendous fate, St. Nicholas threw gold coins down the chimney of the man’s house, thereby saving her and rescuing the family from their predicament.

Whether or not things happened in exactly this way, it was St. Nicholas who was said to have committed this act of kindness, and this is the reason why he is associated with chimneys.

Less than two hundred years after Nicholas’s death, St. Nicholas Church was built in Myra under the orders of Theodosius II over the site of the church where he had served as a bishop, and Nicholas’s remains were moved to a sarcophagus in that church.

In 1087, the Christian Greeks of the region were subjugated by the newly arrived Muslim Seljuk Turks, and, soon afterward, a group of merchants from the Italian city of Bari removed the major bones of Nicholas’ skeleton from his sarcophagus in the church without authorization and brought them to their hometown.

They are now enshrined in the Basilica di San Nicola. The remaining bone fragments from the sarcophagus were later removed by Venetian sailors and taken to Venice during the First Crusade.

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