Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Let me start with a kind of religion-beat emotional trigger alert.

WARNING: Members of ancient Christian communions (and lovers of church history) should put down any beverages (hot or cold) that are in their hands before reading the following "Acts of Faith" feature in The Washington Post. It may help to take some kind of mild sedative.

Now, let's proceed. First there is the headline, which is both clever and totally outrageous, in light of the actual news hook in this story. Ready? Here we go:

Santa dead, archaeologists say

The New York Post headline? You do NOT want to know.

So can you say, "click bait"? Of course this is click bait and I understand why. However, the question is whether this report contains key information that is useful to readers who are interested in the real story -- which could turn out to have major implications for church history as well as ecumenical relations between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches of the East.

The "Santa" in the headline is actually St. Nicholas of Myra, one of the most beloved saints and bishops in ancient Christianity. Before we get to the real story, here is the creative (to say the least) overture of the Post report (which was not written by a religion-desk pro).

First the good news:
Whoever told you that Santa Claus was an impostor with a fake beard collecting a Christmastime check at the mall or a lie cooked up by your parents to trick you into five measly minutes of quiet was, at minimum, misinformed.
The bad news: Santa Claus is definitely dead.
Archaeologists in southern Turkey say they have discovered the tomb of the original Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, beneath his namesake church near the Mediterranean Sea.

Pause: This man is "also known as St. Nicholas"?

Where did I put that bottle of pain pills?

Saint Nicholas of Myra (now Demre) was known for his anonymous gift-giving and generosity. People believed he’d put coins in the shoes of anyone who left them out for him on his feast day, Dec. 6.
As the story goes, he was a monk who gave away his hefty inheritance and instead chose to help the poor and the sick. He’s also a patron saint of sailors and was, of course, especially fond of children.

Actually, the key detail is that the bishop was said to put gold coins in the stockings (hanging overnight in windows to dry) of girls in families that were too poor to provide dowries, meaning these daughters could not marry. The goal was to save these young women from slavery or prostitution.

As with all ancient church figures, there are debates about the details of this saint's life and the hagiography surrounding him. However, there are some generally accepted basic facts about this monk and bishop, who iapparently took part in the pivotal Ecumenical Council of Nicea.

The Post piece -- mostly aggregation from other sources -- works in a few details about the real saint, but it is mainly interested in the patron saint of shopping malls and seasonal advertising. There is a bit of information about Father Christmas, "Sinterklass" (I believe that is "Sinterklaas") and the crucial "A Visit from St. Nicholas" poem by "Clement Clarke" (I believe that is supposed to be "Clement Clarke Moore").

Eventually, readers are linked to a major story in The Telegraph, which did put "Santa Claus" in the headline, but focused on rather important information in its news report. The key question: Have church leaders been wrong for centuries, in terms of identifying the relics of this extremely popular (especially in Russia) saint? Has the real shrine remained hidden under an ancient church in what is now southern Turkey?

Demre, previously known as Myra, in Antalya province, is believed to be the birthplace of the 4th century bishop.
Cemil Karabayram, the head of Antalya’s Monument Authority, said the shrine was discovered during electronic surveys that showed gaps beneath the church.
“We believe this shrine has not been damaged at all, but it is quite difficult to get to it as there are mosaics on the floor,” Mr Karabayram told the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News. 
He said he is very optimistic about uncovering Saint Nicholas’s remains, but warned it will take some time to scale each tile one by one and remove them as a whole in a mold.

Let's keep reading:

At the time of his death in 343 A.D., Saint Nicholas was interred at the church in Demre, where he lay undisturbed until the 11th century. 
Previously, the remains were believed to have then been smuggled to the Italian city of Bari by merchants in the year 1087. Christians visit the site of what was thought to be his final resting place in Bari's Basilica di San Nicola.
However, Turkish experts are now claiming the wrong bones were removed and those taken abroad belong to another, local priest, rather than the legendary bishop.

Now, let's jump over to a new report at National Geographic, which repeats some of that info but adds several more layers of debate:

Traditionally, it was believed that the bones of St. Nicholas were stolen by Italian sailors during the 11th century. Demre -- called Myra in ancient times -- was occupied by Arab forces during this period. And the stolen bones were believed to have been taken to the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola on the southeast coast of Italy. ...
Convinced they were buried at the Basilica di San Nicola, however, Turkish archaeologists demanded the Italian government return the bones in 2009, which they did not do.
In order to truly determine what lies beneath the floors of the Demre church, archaeologists would need to remove an intricate mosaic tile by tile.

Wait. Turkish "archaeologists" demanded the return of the relics? That's missing the point. For centuries, the status of the St. Nicholas relics has been -- to be blunt -- a big bone of contention between Rome and the Orthodox East. That's why it was a major ecumenical event when Rome allowed some of the relics to visit Russia a few months ago.

What if it is proven that the actual tomb and the saint's relics remain in the East?

Stay tuned. This could be a long and complicated debate, involving hard science as well as lots of church history. If journalists want to cover the actual story, it will help to turn Santa Claus into a minor supporting character in the drama.

Please respect our Commenting Policy