Tuesday, December 16, 2008


A tiny town in southern Turkey called Myra was the home of the original St. Nicholas, dating back to the 4th Century AD. At that time, the entire Christian world was under the care of the Pope. Nicholas was a generous Bishop, keen on giving his wealth away to the poor and unprotected small children, usually working in disguise to avoid spongers. On one occasion an unmarried girl, whose father was too poor to provide her with a dowry, found a bag of gold from Nicholas tucked in her stocking, which had been hung out to dry.

After his death on December 6, AD 345, Nicholas became a hugely popular saint all over Europe. Children were told that if they left food out for his horse on the anniversary of his death, Nicholas would leave them sweets. In the 17th century, Dutch settlers brought the idea of St. Nicholas to America and, in time, the date of his visit to the children was conveniently switched to Christmas Eve. By 1870 the increasingly generous figure had arrived in Britain ready to merge with the Viking-originated Father Christmas. In Holland, however, the 6th of December is still celebrated.

The Santa Claus that we know of today seems to post date 1885. That was the magic year that Santa began being commercialized. The red and white suit got its toe in the door, but it wasn’t standardized yet. Prior to the 1930s, Santa had been depicted in a variety of little numbers ranging from snug jumpsuits to multi-colored five-piece suits. In 1931, Coca Cola decided to use Santa in its winter advertising campaign and chose an American artist, Haddon Sunbloom, to design him. He decided to match Santa to the Coca-Cola colors and came up with the black boots, floppy hat and red tunic we know and love.

Most countries do not care that we have a “commercial” Santa Claus. But back in 1991 a newspaper journalist in Turkey became incensed that the west would “steal” St. Nicholas and commercialize him as a drinker of Coca Cola in all the ads for Coke. The newspaper urged the Turkish government to call for a referendum to force Coca Cola Inc. to stop degrading St. Nicholas by placing him in advertising. Apparently not all that many Turks could get worked up over that idea and the hullabaloo died down. How do I know this? I lived there when it happened and read about it in the Turkish Daily News. I have to admit I laughed

Because the Turks are mostly Muslim, they do not celebrate Christmas, although more and more they decorate with trees and lights and garlands and icicles just as we do. But in place of St. Nicholas, the Turkish people have “Baba Noel,” visually a “Father Christmas”- type of personage who fetes the New Year holiday.

So there’s something for everyone, as my cousin Shirlee rightly says. Just depends on what you want and what you expect.

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