Monday, January 21, 2008
So. Santa. Santa flying over a mosque. Santa omnipresent in a Muslim country. What gives, you ask?
Well, as I mentioned in a previous posting, that beloved “American” icon has his roots in, where else - Turkey. Humor me, if you will, while I relate the story of Santa, who is really St. Nicholas, a Christian Turkish saint.
St. Nicholas was born in 260 AD in Turkey (of course!!), the son of wealthy parents that raised him to be a devout Christian and then died when he was young. There are many stories and legends written about the kindness and generosity of St. Nicholas - perhaps the most famous of a poor man who had three daughters. He could not afford a proper dowry for them which left them the option of being sold into slavery. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but was too shy to do it in person so he went to the man's house and threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window on three different nights.
One version has him drop the bag of gold down the chimney to avoid being spotted by the father; another version has the bag falling into a stocking drying above the fire (you see where this is going?)
There are further stories of St. Nicholas calming the seas during a violent storm, saving people from famine, and protecting children as well as many other kind and generous deeds done in secret. He expected nothing in return. Obeying Jesus' words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and went on to become the Bishop of Myra. Celebrated as a saint a century after his death, he became the patron saint of many cities and countries, with 2,000 churches named after him - 400 in England and 34 in Rome alone.
And how did this Turkish Christian bishop become the fat, white-bearded red-suited Santa we know today?
Some say the Dutch brought the tradition of St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam (NY), some say it was the Germans who brought it to Pennsylvania. Regardless, John Pintard, the man who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, pushed for St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York and the Historical Society. Washington Irving joined the society and published Knickerbocker's History of New York, which contained many references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. The Society held its first St. Nicholas’s day anniversary dinner in 1810 and an artist was commissioned to create an American image of St. Nicholas for the occasion. St. Nick was depicted as a gift-giver with presents for children in stockings hanging by the fireplace.
Then in 1823, a poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas” – that we know as “The Night Before Christmas” – was written and became a classic. It was immensely popular and further solidified the image of St. Nick as we know it today. Slowly disappearing was St. Nicholas the European bishop, who reappeared as a round, bearded elfin figure. At the same time, the saint’s name -the German Sankt Nicklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas - morphed into the more phonetic Santa Claus.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .
American artists began to pick up on the images in both Washington Irving’s work and the poem and Santa Claus continued to evolve into a red-suited figure by the 1920’s. And then in 1931 (you knew American commercial interests had to have a hand in all this) an artist for Coca Cola began 35 years of Santa illustrations for Coke that firmly established the image we know today as Santa Claus – a rotund, bearded man with a twinkle in his eye, apple cheeks and a white fur-trimmed red suit. He was such a commercial success hawking all sorts of products that he has been exported BACK around the world and threatens to overwhelm the kindly St. Nicholas. So it goes.
Anyway, much, MUCH more than you wanted to know of course, but then that is the curse of a blog…
So Santa being essentially Turkish (and the Turks have intense national pride) resulted in a proliferation of Santa all around Ankara - for New Year’s, of course. There were Santa mugs and Santa candles and Santa ornaments and 5-ft tall Santas and heck, just about Santa everything. Which was lovely and convenient for a couple of children in a foreign country and excited about Christmas. Santas everywhere! (There were even Christmas carols on the radio, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how that corresponded to the Turkish New Year).
So all the work of creating a Christmas atmosphere in Turkey was removed, except for one tiny detail that did not escape my laser-focused five-year old.
My son, a budding civil engineer at five, always needs to know exactly how things work PHYSICALLY. Well, here we are in Turkey this Christmas, ensconced in an apartment with no fireplace. So of course he expressed great trepidation on just HOW Santa was going to get in to deliver the all important loot if he couldn’t come down a chimney. Living in a foreign country is a daily exercise in being creative and this holiday was no exception. We gamely explained how Santa lands his sleigh on the balcony, as opposed to the roof since we have no fireplace, and hence, no chimney to descend. I see my son dubiously eyeing our narrow 8th floor curved balcony as I’m enthusiastically describing Santa’s near genius ability to land his sleigh and eight reindeer anywhere, physics be damned. This creative explanation also necessitated deciding which window to leave open so Santa could get in from the balcony. My kingdom for a chimney…
You know, they don’t prepare you for this kind of situation when you are planning to live abroad. Sure, I can mail a letter, hail a cab, barter in the marketplace, but no one told me I would have to rework a sacred holiday legend.