Archaeologists Might Have Discovered St. Nick’s Remains in a Hidden Tomb

Gulp. Is that you, Santa?

The port city of Bira, Italy has long been considered the final resting place of Saint Nicholas, the fourth-century saint whose life inspired the story of Santa Claus. His remains are located in the Basilica di San Nicola, a church that was erected after Italian merchants smuggled his bones to the city from present-day Turkey in the 11th century. The Basilica di San Nicola is now a popular tourist spot that attracts thousands of visitors every year.

Except, those merchants might have snagged the wrong bones.

Archaeologists using CT-scanning and geo-radar technology claim to have discovered a hidden tomb located beneath the St. Nicholas Church in Demre, Turkey that could contain the authentic remains of the saint. Before unearthing the tomb, an excavation team will have to carefully remove mosaics on the church floor.

“We have obtained very good results but real works start now,” said Cemil Karabayram, Antalya Director of Surveying and Monuments, to the Hurriyet Newspaper. “We will reach the ground and maybe we will find the untouched body of St. Nicholas. We appointed eight academics of different branches to work here.”

If their prediction is correct, the Demre district will see a massive boost in tourism, Karabayram added.

Damaged tomb in the St. Nicholas Church in Demre.

As researchers shed light on the life and death of Saint Nicholas, it begs the question: How did we take the story of a real-life man and turn him into the jolly, chimney-scaling Santa Claus we know today?

Saint Nicholas from Man to Myth

The details of St. Nicholas’ life are scant, but most accounts agree on some key points: He was born in Patara, Lycia near present-day Turkey around 280 A.D. He lost both parents at a young age and became a devout Christian, and he used his inheritance to help the sick and poor. After returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, St. Nicholas was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian. He was eventually freed and served for decades as the Bishop of Myra, even attending the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.

Russian icon depicting Saint Nicholas with scenes from his life.

What gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus, though, were the tales of his good deeds. One such story tells of three sisters who were destined for slavery because their father couldn’t afford dowries to offer any prospective husbands. (Life was considerably less jolly in the times of real Santa.) But then, on three separate occasions, bags of gold mysteriously fell through the chimney of their home and landed in stockings left near the fireplace to dry. The women could now marry and avoid slavery, all thanks to Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas died in 343 A.D., but he lived on to be one of the most revered saints in Christianity — by Catholics and Protestants alike. Sailors claimed him as their patron saint. Churches were named after him in the East and the West, including 300 in Belgium alone. His tomb in Myra became a popular pilgrimage site, until 1087 when Italian merchants stole his remains and brought them to Bari.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that he became known as “Father Christmas” in Europe. Then, in the 18th century, the story of St. Nicholas – or Sinterklass sailed to the U.S. by way of Dutch immigrants. A New York newspaper reported in 1773 and 1774 that a group of Dutch families had congregated to celebrate the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’s death on December 6.

Washington Irving

In 1809, the lawyer-turned-writer Washington Irving published his first book A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, in which he satirized the traditions of Dutch Americans and their patron saint, Saint Nicholas. In the book, a Dutch official sees a vision of Saint Nicholas in a dream:

And the sage Oloffe dreamed a dream—and, lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. And he descended hard by where the heroes of Communipaw had made their late repast. And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead. And Oloffe bethought him, and he hastened and climbed up to the top of one of the tallest trees, and saw that the smoke spread over a great extent of country—and as he considered it more attentively he fancied that the great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, where in dim obscurity he saw shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

The New York Historical Society had already designated Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of New York a few years before, but Washington’s book helped to animate the saint in the minds of New Yorkers, and thus encourage them to adopt the Dutch tradition as a holiday. So, yeah, Christmas might not exist as we know it if Washington Irving had stuck with law.

In 1822, an Episcopal minister named Clement Clarke Moore helped further thrust Christmas into the culture by writing a poem for his children titled 'A Visit From St. Nicholas' (also known as '’Twas the Night Before Christmas'). 

The poem was published anonymously in an upstate New York newspaper and became wildly popular, selling millions of copies in the years that followed. (Moore is typically credited with writing the poem, but there’s a good case to be made that Major Henry Livingston was actually the author.)

The writings of Irving, Moore and Charles Dickens brought the story to popular imagination, but the image of Santa Claus as we know him — fat, rosy-cheeked, bearded, white — wasn’t solidified until the 1860s when a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast created a series of paintings depicting the saint for Harper’s Weekly. His images also gave Santa Claus a home — the North Pole. Why? Arctic expeditions were a new and popular feat in the mid-19th century, and the region was regarded mysteriously as one the planet’s last unexplored territories.

What isn’t quite known is when Santa Claus became known as a full-fledged home invader, as Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic:

“What is clear, though, is that his status as a participatory myth is a relatively recent invention: It came about, like the fur-and-reindeer images, in the 19th century. Santa, it seems, arose with industrialization, with the economic plenty that came with it, and with something else prosperity inspired: changing notions about the family and the children’s place within in. Santa, as we know him today, was born during a time that was rethinking and reimagining and in many ways reinventing that oldest of things: childhood.”

In any case, the next major shift in the depictions of Santa Claus came with the Coca-Cola ads of the 1920s.

The initial ad campaigns were based off Nast’s stricter-looking Santa, but in 1931 an advertising executive named Archie Lee decided to depict him in a more wholesome light. An illustrator named Haddon Sundblom was commissioned to do the job, and his images would go on to be published in national publications like The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic and the New Yorker.

Sundblom is often credited as the creator of the modern American Santa Claus, who, short of a few Hollywood experiments, has remained jolly, generous and rosy-cheeked for almost a century. 

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study:
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.