From Bishop to Jolly Old Elf – The Tale of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus

STRASBOURG, FRANCE – DEC 20, 2018 – All white decorations on a shop in the Christmas market,Strasbourg, France

Demre, also known as Kale or ancient Myra, is a town located in the Antalya Province of southwestern Turkey. It’s situated on the Mediterranean coast and is historically significant for ancient rock-cut tombs and the origin of a world-wide meme.

Saint Nicholas, bishop of Demre,

later evolved into Santa Claus. He was a 4th-century Christian bishop known for his generosity and kindness. The Church of St. Nicholas, which houses his tomb, is a major pilgrimage site for (mostly) Orthodox Christians. The church also contains beautiful frescoes and mosaic tiled floors.

Russian Orthodox tourists line up to pray at the tomb of St. Nicholas 

Fresco of saints in St. Nicholas Church, Demre, Turkey

One of the most famous stories about Saint Nicholas involves him secretly providing a dowry for three impoverished sisters. According to the legend, Nicholas heard about a poor man who could not afford dowries for his three daughters, which meant they might be forced into a life of destitution. Nicholas, wanting to help, threw three bags of gold through the man’s window at night, providing the dowries and saving the girls from a dire fate.

Statue of Saint Nicholas , bishop of Demre, Turkey

There are many St. Nicolas churches & cathedrals, usually in Orthdox Christian communities of the eastern Mediterranean

Tourists gather in front of the St. Nicholas church , Squalzino, Puglia, Italy
Russian church St. Nicholas, Sofia, Bulgaria
Russin orthodox church, Shipchenski monastery of St Nicholas, Shipka, Bulgaria

St Nicolas chapel, Cave of the Apocalypse, Patmos, Greece

As time goes by

Statue of St Nicolas, Squalzino, Puglia, Italy

How he went from

<– this

to this–>

Santa Claus christmas dolls wearing traditional costumes of Montenegro, Kotor, Montenegro

Over the centuries, the stories of Saint Nicholas’s generosity spread throughout Europe, and various cultures developed their own traditions surrounding him. In some countries, he came to be associated with Christmas and gift-giving.

In the early 19th century, the figure of Santa Claus took on a more modern form in the United States, thanks in part to the influence of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”). This poem helped popularize the image of Santa Claus as a jolly, rotund man who travels in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and delivers gifts to children on Christmas Eve.

The Coca-Cola Company also played a significant role in shaping the modern image of Santa Claus. In the 1930s, Haddon Sundblom, an illustrator, created a series of images featuring a plump, happy Santa Claus for Coca-Cola’s holiday advertisements. This depiction of Santa became highly influential and is one of the most enduring images of the character today.

The legend of Santa Claus continues to evolve and adapt across cultures and regions. Today, Santa is a central figure in many Christmas celebrations around the world, embodying the spirit of giving and kindness during the holiday season. Children write letters to Santa, leaving out cookies and milk as a token of appreciation, and eagerly anticipate his arrival on Christmas Eve.

Santa Claus christmas dolls wearing traditional costumes of Montenegro, Kotor, Montenegro

There’s another major reason to visit Demre – Myra — its well-preserved ancient ruins from the Lycian period. Notable among these are the rock-cut tombs and the Roman theater.

Lycian rock cut tombs carved into the hillside of Myra, Turkey
Lycian rock cut tombs carved into the hillside of Myra, Turkey

According to Strabo Myra was one of the largest towns of Lycian League (168 BCE– CE 43) and later a Roman city. Today tourists are attracted to Myra, in part from its ubiquitous appearance in Turkish travel brochures.

The tombs, some dating back to the 4th century BCE, were carved into the vertical faces of the cliffs that surround the ancient city. They showcase the typical Lycian architectural style, which features facades resembling the front of wooden Lycian houses.

Different types of tombs at Myra include simple chamber tombs, pillar tombs, and house-type tombs. Some of the tombs are relatively small and simple, while others are more elaborate and grandiose.

Many of the tombs feature inscriptions in Lycian and Greek script. They often include the names of the deceased and sometimes details about their lives.

Roman theatre built into the hillside of Myra, Turkey

Romans built the Theater of Myra in the 1st century CE. It was of modest size, seating around 10,000 spectators. As the centuries passed, the city of Myra faced various natural disasters and changes in political power, accelerating its decline. The theater, like many ancient structures, fell into disuse and disrepair and many of its stone were repurposed for newer, if less majestic, buildings.

Carved Greek masks as decoration from the theatre of of Myra, Turkey

Today, although the theater is largely in ruins, you can still visit the site to see the remnants of this once magnificent structure. Local folk sell their crafts when you make your way to the top of the theatre

Over the last few years the sprawling bazaars around Demre & Myra sites have been transformed into more modern (if less interesting) strip malls but still selling everything from fridge magnets to fine art icons.

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By Cascoly

I've been exploring and leading trips for over 40 years. climbing & trekkng in the Alps, Andes, North American mountain ranges and the Himalaya. I'm retired from mountaineering now but world travels in Europe, Africa & Asia continue to expand my portfolio. Besides private travel, I now focus on escorting trips to India & Turkey. Other interests include wide reading in history and vegetable gardening / cooking. You can download digital images here, or find images at We have many thousands of images we haven't displayed yet; so, if you have a special need or request please contact us