January 01, 2021

Searching for St. Nicholas

Searching for St. Nicholas
“Nicholas of Myra Saving Three Innocent Prisoners from Death.” Ilya Repin (1888)

To the undiscerning eye, the Turkish city of Demre is not much to look at, let alone stop for. Rows upon rows of greenhouses covered in clear plastic sheeting cover nearly every plot of land. The drab outpost in southwestern Anatolia lacks the luxuriant resorts and Turquoise Coast panache of such places as Bodrum, Marmaris, and Antalya, the latter a renowned haven for Russian vacationers.

But when it comes to historical personages, Demre hit the jackpot. In its previous incarnation, the town was known as Myra and was home to a fourth-century bishop named Nicholas. The beloved clergyman went on to achieve sainthood and become one of the most celebrated figures in both Western and Eastern Christianity, particularly in Russia, where he has long held a special place as revered heavenly intercessor and protector. Indeed, he is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students in various cities and countries around Europe. In much of the world, St. Nicholas, who legendarily had a habit of secret gift-giving, came to embody Christmas generosity and joy in the form of his alter ego, Santa Claus (or in Turkey, Noel Baba, meaning Christmas Father).

The fame of St. Nicholas made Myra an attraction from the early days of Christianity, and over the centuries churches were built there to honor him. In fact, this is how Russia came to have a footprint in Myra that has persisted to the present. In 1850, a writer and avid traveler named Andrei Muravyov visited and found the previous Church of St. Nicholas overrun with silt and in a general state of ruin. On returning to Russia, he embarked on a campaign to raise money to fund the church’s restoration. Nicholas I was tsar at the time – a happy coincidence.

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