Myra Ruins in Demre: Santa Claus was born here! (kind of)

Myra Ruins Necropolis

Everyone knows Santa Claus – the jolly old bearded man with a red and white coat, a flying sleigh pulled by 9 reindeer.

Rarely do we think about his childhood – did Santa himself receive presents as a kid? Was he naughty or nice? Where was Santa Claus even born?

You’re probably thinking somewhere cold, snowy, maybe Lapland, maybe the North Pole? One of those is right and off you go, article finished. Let’s change the question.

But no. I’m here to tell you that the frontrunner for Santa Claus’ birthplace is an ancient site we know as the Myra Ruins in South Turkey, near the popular resort city of Antalya.

Myra Ruins

The ruins of Myra are a captivating archaeological site that offers a glimpse into the ancient Lycian civilization. Myra was an influential city in antiquity, known for its stunning rock-cut tombs and impressive Roman amphitheater.

The Lycian tombs, part of the Myra Ruins, from close.
The Lycian Tombs

The iconic feature of the Myra Ruins is the intricately carved Lycian tombs, hewn into the cliffs, showcasing remarkable craftsmanship.

The Roman theater, built into the hillside, once hosted grand performances and seated thousands.

Roman Amphitheater in Myra
The Roman Amphitheater

The entrance ticket for the Myra ruins is 300 TL / 11$ in August 2023 (It was 100 TL in 2022, but inflation and devaluation are a pain to the Turkish economy).

For the real adventurous law-breakers out there who think this is way too much, there’s a way to sneak inside by climbing over the rocks on the left side of the Ruins (not that I recommend it).

Saint Nicholas church

The modern-day city of Demre is 2 km. south of the ruins of Myra. Well, actually it’s the same city, but in 2006 it changed its name to Demre, thus the centuries-old Myra was retired into history.

In Demre City proper, there is the Byzantine-era Saint Nicholas’ church which was recently renovated and fully reopened in 2023. The entrance ticket costs 390 TL / 14.3$ as of August 2023 which is a massive rip-off as it’s a very small church.

Saint Nicholas Church in scaffolding under restoration in 2022
Saint Nicholas Church under renovation in 2022.

How to get to Myra and Demre?

Assuming you’re already on the Turkish Aegean Coast, the closest cities to Demre are Antalya and Kas. There are regular buses or dolmus (Turkish minibuses) from both to Demre.

From Antalya to Demre

From Antalya Otogari there are regular direct buses to Demre and tickets cost around 70 TL / 2.5$. The journey takes around 3-4 hours, but note that the road is winding and very curvy.

The bus drivers who drive between Demre and Antalya are frequently respected and/or pitied.

Timetable of buses from Demre to Antalya and to Kas
Timetable from Demre to Antalya and Kas

From Kas to Demre

The resort town of Kaş is only an hour away from Demre. There are 3-4 minibuses every morning that go towards Antalya stopping in Demre. They depart from the smaller Kas Otogari in the center of town.

It is possible to depart from Kas in the morning, stop at Demre and check out the Myra Ruins, then take a later minibus to Antalya and arrive in the early evening.

St. Nicholas

Both the Church and the Ruins (tombs & amphitheater) in Demre/Myra are swarmed by Russian tourists daily.

St. Nicholas is a very popular saint in Russia, being the patron saint of sailors, travelers, children, students, brewers, prisoners, thieves (but only those who repent), pawnbrokers, and (very specifically) Russian merchants.

When you think about it – basically everyone.

St. Nicholas was chosen as one of the prototypes for Santa because of the many myths that surround his persona.

He didn’t leave anything written and although that creates some doubts about his historical existence, let’s not forget he lived during very turbulent times (270-343 AD).

St. Nicholas with kids statue in Demre
St. Nicholas with kids statue in Demre

One of the most famous legends is that he saved three girls from being forced into prostitution by their fathers to help with the family budget (that was a thing at that time, yeah…) by dropping a sack of gold coins under the window so the fathers could find them and pay the dowry to marry them.

There are other stories, myths, and legends surrounding him, for example, he was known for leaving coins in the shoes of people. This is taken to be the precursor of gift-giving that we so associate with Christmas.

He was known for his generosity and kindness. Perfect for the image of the benevolent, gift-giving, charitable Santa Claus we recognize today.

Is Saint Nicholas buried in the St. Nicholas Church in Demre?

Yes and no.

Upon his death, St. Nicholas was buried in the area in or around Myra. 200 years after his death Emperor Theodosius II built a church with a tomb which we can see in Demre today.

That’s not the end of the story for his body though.

Tombs in the ruins of Myra, Turkey
More than likely some of St. Nicholas’ smaller bones are in one of those tombs

In 1087 some Italian sailors were worried that they and their Christian compatriots wouldn’t be able to pilgrimage to the church anymore because the Seljuks had taken control of the region. So they did the most logical thing: they took most of the big bones and sailed away to Bari.

Basilica di San Nicola is the place where these bigger bones are to this day.

Just the big bones though.

About 10 years later, during the First Crusade, some Venetians also wanted a piece of the pie, the pie being St. Nicholas. They made an extra stop in Myra just to get the remaining bones.

Nowadays you can visit the Monastery of San Nicolò al Lido for the minor bones.

About 30 years ago, in 1992, genetic and biological research on the bones in both Bari and Venice showed that they might very well belong to the same person. Because of his popularity, fragments, minor bones, and teeth were spread all across Europe.

And there you have it – Saint Nicholas, whose bones rest in at least 5 different places, the prototype for Santa Claus, spent the majority of his life in the coastal city of Myra.

Who is Santa Claus?

That question is more difficult than you might think. He’s a mash-up of characters, a combination of folklore, historical figures, and commercial influences.

  1. St. Nicholas: The origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop who lived in the 4th century. St. Nicholas was known for his generosity and kindness, particularly toward children. Over the centuries, stories of his benevolence and gift-giving became associated with Christmas. St. Nicholas was born in Myra, modern-day Turkey.
  2. Sinterklaas: In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is known as Sinterklaas. Dutch settlers brought this tradition to America, and over time, the name evolved into “Santa Claus.”
  3. Coca-Cola: The modern image of Santa Claus, as a plump, jolly man with a white beard, red suit, and black boots, was popularized in the 1930s by Coca-Cola in its advertising campaigns. The company’s depiction of Santa Claus in its holiday advertisements helped solidify this image in popular culture. That explains the red and white colors, doesn’t it?
Santa Claus
Hi, I’m Nicholas, and I was invented by Coca-Cola!

If you are someone who believes Santa Claus is a real person, yes he is, ignore the made-up stuff above.

So was Santa Claus born in Myra and did he live in Turkey?

Once again: yes and no.

If you consider St. Nicholas to be the archetype for Santa Claus, the O.G. Santa if I can put it this way, then yeah, Santa lived in Turkey, on the coast. Fascinating stuff.

But remember, that the Santa Claus we know today is a result of a marketing campaign by a company with a big, red, italicized 8-letter name, the same reason why we drink so much of this extremely sugary drink in the winter.

Then this means no – Santa wasn’t born in Turkey but in an office in Coca-Cola’s main headquarters in Atlanta Georgia.

It’s up to you, really.

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