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Turkish Town Exchanges St. Nick for Santa

Local Hero's Statue Moved From Square

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page A01

DEMRE, Turkey -- In the 4th century, a bishop named Nicholas was a local hero in this seaside town, living the kind of life that eventually led to sainthood. For most of the 16 centuries that followed, Saint Nicholas was known chiefly as the patron of sailors, barrel-makers, small children and Russians.

And though it's not entirely clear just when the historical Saint Nicholas began to meld into the image of the jolly man in the red suit, historians can now say precisely when the transformation was complete. On Feb. 3, the Demre City Council voted unanimously to erect a statue of Santa Claus in the town square, replacing a bronze statue of the Saint Nicholas who merely lived here.


Mayor Suleyman Topcu points with pride to Demre's official seal, which features a stylized Santa, rather than the town's 4th-century local hero. (Karl Vick -- The Washington Post)

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"This is the one everyone knows," Mayor Suleyman Topcu said of the plaster-of-Paris figure put up in place of the elegant bronze. "We couldn't figure out what the other one is."

They are finding out. The demotion of the real Saint Nicholas did not go unnoticed. Offended parties include Russian Orthodox tourists who venerated the saint made the patron of their homeland by Czar Alexander II; the sculptor, also Russian, who donated the bronze statue five years ago; tour operators who pitch Demre as part of a tour of Turkey's religious history; and an assortment of bystanders who see the town's elevation of Santa over Nicholas as the ultimate commercialization of, if not Christmas, something dignified and sacred.

"The one out there is a joke," said Ozay Eryener, a Turkish tour guide ushering a busload of Germans through the ruins of the ancient church from which Nicholas's bones were stolen in 1087 and spirited to Italy. The bronze statue, with its halo and arms extended benevolently, now stands at the entrance to the ruin, tucked unobtrusively between a stone pillar and a bit of wall.

Its demotion passed without comment by the Germans accompanying Eryener. "We prefer not to tell them," he said.

Demre is not a place where one more Saint Nick would necessarily attract a lot of notice. Images of the secular Santa beam from the stone archway at the edge of town. His bushy whiskers, rendered in lamb's wool, spring from the hand-woven wall hangings on sale in vendors' stalls. The city's official seal features a handsomely stylized Santa framed by a dashing red cap. A tinsel palm tree glimmers on streets lined with the real thing.

"We don't know what to think, really," said Guray Yilmaz, a local vendor. He stood in the shadow of the sun-blasted Santa, beside his display of local spices: nutmeg, red pepper, "sex tea" and black cumin. "The tour guides come and they get angry. Then other people say this is more popular.

"The local people say this is better," Yilmaz said, with a nod toward Santa. "The other was a priest, a Christian."

Turkey is, after all, overwhelmingly Muslim. Nicholas lived in Demre before the prophet Muhammad began reciting the words of God on a mountain in the Arabian Peninsula. In the 4th century, Demre was known as Myra and was part of the Roman Empire. Saint Paul changed boats in its harbor while roaming Asia Minor spreading the Gospel. A massive stone amphitheater still stands at the edge of town, drawing tourists in the lee of rocky cliffs laced with impressively carved tombs.

Nicholas, whose birthday is observed Dec. 6, was renowned both for his generosity and for his passionate, even violent defense of the young Christian church. He was said to have slapped the face of an Egyptian who questioned whether Jesus was equal to God. He also is said to have saved Myra from famine, three boys from being pickled in a barrel and several poor local women from lives of prostitution -- the last by secretly dropping bags of coins into their homes at night so that they could wed.

Such late-night largess may be the thread that connects the historical Nicholas with his modern incarnation, so famous globally that even Muslim Turkey claims a version.

"Noel Baba is our citizen," said Faruk Akbudak, a senior bureaucrat in Demre, using the Turkish for Father Christmas. "We respect him. We embrace him."

"Yes, the people prefer this one," said Topcu, the mayor. "But the foreigners do, too."


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