New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

Let us now pause to offer a word of thanksgiving and modest praise for a New York Times story about religion.

Of course, this particular news report has nothing to do with sexuality or religious liberty, so the editorial bar was set a bit lower. However, this story does have a few kind words to say about Russian Orthodox believers, which is a kind a miracle in and of itself right now.

The dateline for this report is the city of Demre, in southern Turkey, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus Mountains. In other words, this comes from a region that is absolutely crucial to the history of the early church and the people of the New Testament, although most readers (the story takes this into account) would not know that. 

The headline focuses on an all-to-often overlooked hero of the Christian faith: "In Turkey’s Home of St. Nick, Far From North Pole, All Is Not Jolly."

Now, why is this story appearing in the Times on Dec. 19th? I would assume that this is because a Times correspondent noted an increase in the number of Christians coming to Demre for events celebrating the life and faith of St. Nicholas of Myra.

But why Dec. 19th? The story never tells us why.

This raises an interesting question: Does the reporter, or the Times copy desk, even realize that Dec. 19th is the Feast of St. Nicholas, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church in Russia and in many other Eastern lands? In the West, the feast of St. Nicholas -- with its emphasis on almsgiving for the poor and small gifts (think chocolates wrapped to look like gold coins) -- is celebrated on Dec. 6th, on the newer Gregorian calendar.

But let's look at a key summary of facts early in this story:

Yes, Virginia, you heard that right, Santa Claus is from Turkey. But this year, Christmastime in Demre is far from cheery.
The man who would capture the imaginations of children the world over got his start as a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey, centuries before the Ottomans invaded these lands and established a towering Islamic empire. His name was St. Nicholas, and his church is now a museum. Born a rich man’s son, he took his inheritance and gave to the poor, in anonymous gifts that some here say were dropped down the chimneys of homes.
As millions of children around the world drag their parents to shopping malls to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him their wishes, hardly anyone is coming to Demre. Turkey has an abundance of problems -- frequent terror attacks, a swelling population of Syrian refugees, mass arrests after a failed coup -- that have driven tourists away. The only foreign visitors to Demre these days seem to be a small number of Russians, many of whom revere St. Nicholas as the third-holiest figure in Christianity, after Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

It takes more than the threat of bombs, it would appear, to keep Russians away. Also, we will come back to the issue of gifts being tossed down chimneys.

In addition to the fact that this story ignores the actual feast of this beloved saint, I was also left wondering why the Church of St. Nicholas is now a museum.

Might that be a significant fact in this story, linked to the impact of centuries of persecution of Christians in Turkey? It might even be a recent development, with the rise of a government that leans toward a more radical, some would say traditional, approach to Islamic laws. In other words, a church is not a building. What happened to the PEOPLE of St. Nicholas parish?

But there I go again, caring about the religious heart of this semi-sweet holiday story.

Let's get to the details of one of the many stories about St. Nicholas, the patron saint of orphans and oppressed children, among other groups. It is interesting that the primary provider of facts about this saint is the Muslim believer who runs the museum coffee shop.

“It’s true that he dropped gifts from the chimney,” he said. “Because poor people from here are very proud people, they wouldn’t have accepted gifts if he had just handed them to them. That’s why he dropped them from a chimney.”
A famous story about St. Nicholas that has been passed down through history goes like this: Hearing that a poor man was forcing his young daughters into prostitution because he could not afford dowries, St. Nicholas gave him gold. But he did so anonymously -- tossing the gold through a window or, maybe, down the chimney.
“The biggest thing St. Nicholas did was help the children,” Mr. Ozel said, nodding toward a statue of a man resembling Santa with children on the museum grounds. “He gave them gifts.”

Actually, I have read a lot about St. Nicholas (in church and in research for columns, including the St. Nicholas link to 9/11) and I've never read anything about chimneys. You do often see the detail that poor women, young and old, washed their one set of stockings every day and hung them in windows at night to dry. Thus, it is said that St. Nicholas placed these lifesaving gifts -- small bags of gold coins -- in their stockings.

I kept wondering, as I read this story: Are there no Christians left in Demre? One way or another, isn't that a crucial fact that needs to be included in this news story? 

I mean, it is clear that some members of the local population are doing what they can -- for a variety of reasons -- to keep the heart of the real St. Nicholas story alive. Readers might like to know that it is not uncommon for Muslims to respect, if not revere, some early Christian saints as heroes of culture and even faith. Thus, the story adds:

Residents tend to stick to the history of the man, St. Nicholas, and largely scoff at the popular image of Santa Claus in the West, which they regard as a product of crass commercialism.
“People just kept telling stories,” Mr. Ozel said. “It became a business. The story kept changing as it was told in different parts of the world.”
Still, Mr. Ozel said he believed the government could be doing more to promote the special history of St. Nicholas and his place in worldwide Christian traditions. In Turkey these days, the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has worked hard to promote the country’s Ottoman history while, critics say, ignoring Turkey’s important place in Christian history.

Then, there is this:

Erdal Karakos, a tour guide who was taking a few Russians through the museum recently, said, “You call him Santa Claus, but the Orthodox call him the wonder maker.”
Mr. Karakos added: “He was a holy man. He didn’t have this red dress or beard.”

Actually, that phrase is usually translated as "wonder worker," meaning that through his prayers, St. Nicholas is connected with many miracles of God.

Also, there is this:

In addition to his anonymous gift-giving, St. Nicholas is remembered as a maker of miracles, and Russians and other Orthodox Christians come to Demre to pray for healing or to be saved from financial ruin. Many couples who are unable to conceive come and pray for children.

So let me stress that someone at the Times, probably the local correspondent, found a solid story at the grassroots level in Turkey, away from the usual emphasis on Istanbul.

Trust me, there are many other such stories, as ancient evidence of the priceless Christian heritage of this land is, in some cases quite literally, being paved over by the government. It's a tragedy of culture and history, as well as religious faith -- rather like all of those monastery libraries that vanished in Iraq and Syria. It would help if Western reporters noticed.

This Times story gets lots of things right, primarily details linked to Turkish politics and facts that could be learned from the locals through interviews. However, it would have helped to have talked to some Christians, if any have survived. Did any of those Russians speak English or Turkish?

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