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FINDING FATHER CHRISTMAS IN TURKEY, A SEARCH FOR THE REAL ST. NICHOLAS

Southern Turkey seemed a strange place to search for Santa Claus.
There wasn't the slightest hint of ice or snow along the magnificent stretch of rocky Mediterranean shoreline known as the Turquoise Coast. And we didn't spot a single reindeer on the entire two-hour drive west from Antalya to Demre. (I'm not sure my $50-a-day Turkish driver, Fuat, would have recognized one even if it had hit us broadside, however.)

The fact is, the modern village of Demre and its ancient Lycian counterpart, Myra, which is said to be the home of the real St. Nicholas, seemed about as far removed from the North Pole as you could get.

Despite the odds, we pressed on with our quest for Santa Claus, and we weren't disappointed. On the outskirts of Demre we saw a sign saying that Noel Baba, the Turkish name for Father Christmas, was only a kilometer up the road.

The minute we spotted the herd of tourist buses gathered in front of the sidewalk souvenir stands, we knew we were in the right place. Even in Turkey, the mention of Santa Claus makes dollar signs appear in people's eyes.

Across the street was Noel Baba Kilisesi, the Church of Father Christmas, an ancient basilica encircled by a high stone wall. Inside, in a small rose garden, stood a life-size statue of St. Nicholas carrying a sack of gifts and surrounded by several small children.

But he was not wearing the familiar red and white suit with the droopy red cap that we have come to associate with Santa Claus in our part of the world. Rather, St. Nicholas was dressed in the traditional black robes of a bishop, which is what he was back in Byzantine times.

Historians tell us St. Nicholas was born in the fourth century in Patara and educated at Xanthos. As a young man, he was elected bishop of Myra, where he was martyred in 345 A.D. after being imprisoned during the Roman Emperor Diocletian's persecutions.

St. Nicholas was a popular figure among Eastern Christians, and his cult was introduced first into Germany and later into England, where some 400 churches were dedicated to him.

After his death, a Byzantine basilica was built here to house his tomb, and today it is the site of the annual Noel Baba Festival that commemorates the anniversary of his death with music, dancing and gift-giving.

Unfortunately, neither St. Nicholas nor his basilica has fared well over the years. In 1087, Italian merchants robbed his tomb and took his bones back to Bari, Italy. In their haste they dropped a few bones, which are now displayed in a reliquary in the Antalya museum.

The massive stone basilica was restored in 1862 by a Russian prince who commissioned an architect named Salzman to replace the Byzantine cupola with a crosswise arch and add a belfry.

Since then, time and earth tremors have taken their toll. Today, wooden boards support a makeshift roof that looks as if it could come crashing down at any time, and fallen marble columns litter the floor inside.

It is still possible, however, to make out the faint mosaic figures of several saints on the walls, one of whom resembles St. Nicholas.

Exactly how a bishop in southern Turkey became known as Santa Claus is a rather convoluted -- and undoubtedly much embellished -- story.

St. Nicholas gained a reputation for his generosity while he was bishop of Myra. As the tale goes, a former city dignitary had fallen on hard times and had no money to marry off the eldest of his three daughters.

When St. Nicholas overheard one of the girl's sisters offering to sell herself to raise a dowry, he secretly threw a bag of gold through a window of their home. He repeated this kindly act two more times, enabling all three daughters to be married.

One of the bags supposedly fell into a stocking that was hanging near the chimney to dry, thus giving rise to the custom of hanging Christmas stockings by the fireplace.

As a result of his kindness, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children. He was also claimed as a patron saint by sailors, scholars, merchants and pawnbrokers, whose emblem of three golden balls was inspired by the three bags of gold.

In Europe, it became customary to celebrate his feast day on Dec. 6 by having someone dress in a bishop's costume and distribute gifts to children. This custom was introduced to England from Germany during Queen Victoria's reign, adding another dimension to the Christmas celebration.

The Dutch brought the tradition of gift-giving and St. Nicholas, whom they called Sinter-Klass, with them when they settled in New Amsterdam, now New York. When English settlers picked up the idea, they changed his name from Sinter-Klass to Santa Claus.

The current image of Santa Claus owes a great deal to Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," where the reindeer and sleigh, the twinkling eye and round belly were added. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, developed the popular picture of Santa Claus, which first appeared in a cartoon in Harper's Illustrated Weekly in 1863.

Besides the Church of Father Christmas, Demre does not have much to distinguish it from other villages along the Turkish Riviera. At local cafes you can quench your thirst with ayran, a popular drink made from yogurt thinned with water, and satisfy your hunger with appetizing Turkish pizza.

There is also an inexpensive pension, the Noel Pansiyon, where you can get a double room for $7 a night, and a hotel on the outskirts of town, the Otel Kiyak, where you can expect to pay twice that amount.

Far more interesting are the ruins of ancient Myra, which are located less than a mile from Demre overlooking a sea of tumble-down tomato greenhouses and orange tree orchards.

Myra was one of the earliest Lycian cities, and at one time it was quite a hub of activity. St. Paul stopped for a visit in 60 A.D. on his way to Rome, and by the time St. Nicholas became bishop of the see, Myra was a center of religion and secular administration.

Gazing at the ruins of Myra's Roman amphitheater, one can almost imagine the stage filled with actors performing tragedies and comedies centuries ago.

Off to the side, carved in the cliff like ancient condominiums, are the famous rock tombs of Myra. There is no convenient way to reach these stone crypts, and your only choice is either to stay at the bottom or to scramble up the face of the cliff, hoping your travel insurance policy is paid up.

The climb is well worth the effort, however. From the uppermost tier of rock tombs, you can enjoy a panoramic view of St. Nicholas' former domain, bringing your search for Santa Claus to a suitably impressive conclusion.

For information on visiting Turkey, write the Turkish Tourism and Information Office, 821 United Nations Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10017.

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