Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Since 99 % of Turkey is Muslim, Christmas is not an official holiday, though it is not prohibited. For the few Christians, December 25th is a regular day in which they go to school or to work and are then left with no choice but to celebrate either in private or in the few available churches.
For most Turks, Christmas is an unknown holiday. Unfortunately, many times it is portrayed by the mass media as a holiday for Santa Claus, lights, gifts and decorated Christmas trees as a sign of shining hope for the start of the new year. And so like that in homes, in streets and now more frequently even in public buildings, one can find decorated Christmas trees as well as different versions of the traditional Santa Claus – usually an elderly man, full-bodied, jovial with spectacles, dressed with a red costume that has white leather inserts, and a long beard that is also white.
In Turkey, for the most part, not only are the origins of Christmas unknown, but much less is known about the true identity of Santa Claus, who in reality is actually Turkish!
Each version of the modern day Santa Claus derives in fact from the same historic person: the Bishop Nicholas from the city of Myra (an ancient city of modern day Turkey), who lived in Asia Minor between the III and IV century, during the Emperor Constantine’s reign who is said to have regularly given gifts to the poor. The same Saint Nicholas, which in Italy is known most of all for his ties with the city of Bari and whose body was taken there from Myra by sailors in the spring of 1087, 16 years after the invasion of Asia Minor by the Seljuk Turks and after the conquest of Apulia by the Normans.
The church in the city of Demre was dedicated to Nicholas. It is a very common modern Turkish city along the magnificent Turkish coast, on a strip of fertile and warm land, that continues to produce flavourful vegetables even in December, that probably would not have made history if it were not the Holy See of this saint.
The church’s origins go back to the IV century when Nicholas was the bishop of the city Demre, then known as Myra. Currently under renovation, it has now been transformed into a museum. For many years, religious and political authorities have argued over whether the Eucharist should be celebrated there. It has not even been possible on December 6th, the date in which the saint’s death is traditionally remembered, presumably around 343.
And just like that, for years no celebrations have been permitted, nor even prayers. Just guided tours after having purchased a ticket from the Turkish Tourism Agency, like a normal entry to any museum.
This, however, has never discouraged the faithful, the locals or the pilgrims. And mainly the Russians are the ones who travelled there, since it was from Byzantium that the image of Saint Nicholas and the traditions were taken to the Russian cities, where after centuries, they became so embedded there that the saint was then made the national patron. Only in the first half of 2007, according to a survey by the journalist Serpil Yilmaz from the newspaper Hurriyet, two hundred and fifty thousand Russians visited the site.
Now it seems that the Saint, who distinguishes himself from the others by his generosity, justice, and capacity to intervene decisively and fairly, has performed a “miracle”. With great joy and satisfaction on behalf of the entire Orthodox church, the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew I, after five years of patience and insisting determination towards the authorities of Ankara has now been granted permission to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy in the church of the Saint.
The meeting last year in Ankara between the patriarch and the new Minster of Culture, Ertuğrul Gunay from the AKP party ( a party of the government known for its Muslim elements) was the decisive turning point. The Minister said, “I earnestly want every citizen in this country to be able to freely celebrate their own religion in the place seen as most important for worship.” And the proof that he did not want to go back on his word was that not only did he allow the mass to be celebrated in Saint Nicholas in Demre, but he also gave forty-thousand Turkish Lira (approximately twenty-five thousand euros circa) for the completion of the basilica’s makeover. Especially in the winter and in the spring, the basilica is submerged under rain water because it is three meters under the street level damaging the mosaics and the frescos found in the crypt of the sarcophagus of the Bishop Nicholas.