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.
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.
Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.
The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it's full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God's ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn't they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn't stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn't strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. "Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging," he says. Stephen Greenblatt's latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.
Storytelling isn’t an escape from reality, it’s a deep dive into it.
Every Monday morning I wake up to jot down my thoughts on the previous evening’s episode of Game of Thrones. During the show I take a few notes, though I like to sleep on the events before finalizing my ideas. If you’ve read during previous weeks, this column is not a recap as much as pulling concepts from each episode that broadly speak to our culture, and I try not to be too reactionary.
Sure, I’ve seen a few comments of people complaining, “Can’t you leave anything sacred? Do we have to politicize a show?” But that’s always been the function of great storytelling. No mythology is created in a vacuum. In order for the story to have relevance it must address timely issues. What could be more timely than climate change, immigration issues, and cults of inflated personalities?
Storytelling isn’t an escape from reality, it’s a deep dive into reality using highly imaginative metaphors and analogies. Two of the greatest war epics in history, the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita, have lasted thousands of years because they speak directly to so many facets of the human condition. Both are, in parts, fantastical and biologically impossible, appealing to the same emotional mechanisms inside of us that love the impossible, such as dragons and zombies with serious javelin skills.
Yet if it were only fantasy these tales would leave us unfulfilled. Stories have to impact our understanding of the world around us or else they wouldn’t make sense. The great archer Arjuna’s existential crisis on the battlefield is one of the most pivotal moments in the Indian mythos because it also speaks to what the government expected of him: a player in the caste system expected to fulfill his role as an agent of the armed forces. Yes, Krishna says, you have to kill your cousins and friends. To justify his decree the godhead reminds Arjuna that he reincarnates humans like humans change clothes, another impossibility that plays to our penchant for essentialism—in this case there’s something inside of us, a soul, that lives on, alleviating the archer’s guilt.
The soul that truly lives on is the story, not the human. That’s how a wicked, power-hungry queen like Cersei, who destroys everything in her path, comes from the same tradition as the wicked, power-hungry goddess of magic, Circe, Homer’s homage to the Greek spinster. (In the Odyssey, Hermes militarizes Odysseus with a drug called moly to protect him from Circe’s magic; draw your own parallels there.) Themes repeat even as actresses are replaced.
Game of Thrones is a modern mythology. The media we use to tell stories today are quite different from shlokas and dactylic hexameter. In this case it’s not the medium but the message that matters. What’s reincarnated throughout time is this need to communicate to one another to remind us of our place in this world. In Myth and Reality, the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade writes:
To know the myths is to learn the secret origin of things. In other words, one learns not only how things came into existence but also where to find them and how to make them reappear when they disappear.
Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall understands this necessity of narrative. Humans are, in his words, storytelling animals. Through stories we define ourselves as individuals and cultures. Those who came before us help to shape our sense of self through the stories they tell. What they tell we repeat and remix for our own purposes.
In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall writes that narrative “suggests that the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.” Religion, philosophy, economics, societies, governments—everything is a story we tell to convince ourselves of our place in the world. We reconfirm our beliefs by reiterating these stories, over and over again, until they become the lens through which we view reality. We pass down traditions to our children, who borrow the essence while translating them to suit their own needs. Life perpetuates through narrative as much as genes.
Which is why Game of Thrones has become such a phenomenon. In a time of binge watching and endless choice, it is the single show millions of people discuss in real time on social media. When I was growing up in the eighties, the next day at school often involved discussions about the previous evening’s shared experience. Miss it and you have no voice. That’s why I don’t get choked up when people complain about online spoilers. Don’t log in if you’re not ready to discuss. Game of Thrones is probably the only show in which this is still the case.
And it’s also why we’ll tune in next week even given the overt stretching in episode six. In classical mythologies it was not unusual for characters to appear out of nowhere to fulfill a singular role, regardless of how illogical it seemed. Enter Uncle Benjen. Having Bran warg into Jon Snow’s sword Longclaw (did you see its eyes open?) to contact dear uncle feels too convenient. Maybe the writers believed they needed to make Jon and Dany’s hand holding more dramatic, but the route there seemed forced.
C’est la vie. Some series have fizzled out from too many complicating and competing storylines (Lost) and some just lost steam (Mad Men) while others kept focus for many seasons (Breaking Bad) and other still knew when to end (The Leftovers).
Death is inescapable, Beric reminds us, but still we fight. The end of this story is near. There will be carnage we’ll love and that which we won’t, and no two of us will agree on the finality. But one thing is certain: we’ll keep watching, so essential is the story to us.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.