Children around the world wait all year long for the time to come, when Santa Claus will bring them gifts during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve. The omnipresent, joyous, white-bearded man dressed in red most of the time, became particularly popular in the 19th century but his story unwinds back into the past of Bishop Nicholas of Myra and ancient god Poseidon who tormented Odysseus for killing his son Polyphemos by keeping him away from Ithaca for many years.
The modern figure was derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas,which, in turn, was part of its basis in hagiographical tales concerning the historical figure of Christian bishop and gift giver Saint Nicholas. A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek Orthodox and Byzantine Christian folklore to Saint Basil of Caesarea. Basil’s feast day on January 1 is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.
Although some scholars claim there are no reliable historical records to confirm his existence (the earliest written accounts of St. Nicholas date from nearly 500 years after his life and his biography coalesced in the 13th century), Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas (the Dutch name for modern time Santa Claus, which itself comes from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”). He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia located in modern Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular for presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity.
In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was conquered by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bari, where they are kept to this day. This transfer directly contributed to spreading the legends and miracles of Nicholas to the West. In continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers.He is the protector of Sicily, Greece and Russia and also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow, while he is commemorated and revered among Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians.
Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbors, just like in the case of Myra. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as “The Lord of the Sea”, often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon. When Christianity was established as the formal state religion of the Roman Empire, churches began to rise in the ruins of the temples of the former deities of the ancient Greeks. According to many religious historians, Nicholas’ life story and legends resemble much of the the mythology and legends attributed to ancient Greek god Poseidon, the Roman god Neptune, and the Teutonic god Hold Nickar.
Furthermore, the feast day of St Nicholas is December 6th, the day when the bishop of Myra is reported to have died (342 AD). This day is speculated by many to well have been in pre-Christian times a feast of Poseidon, marking the beginning of winter and possibly the day when navigation ended and ships returned to the harbors. In Athens and other parts of ancient Greece, there was a month that roughly corresponded to December/January that was named Poseideon for the sea-god Poseidon.
A further interesting connection between St Nicholas and Poseidon lies written in the Books XI and XXIII of Homer’s Odyssey. In the epic, Odysseus is instructed by the blind prophet Tiresias to take an oar (Winnowing Oar) from his ship and to walk inland until he finds a “land that knows nothing of the sea”, where the oar would be mistaken for a winnowing fan. At this point, he is to offer a sacrifice to Poseidon, and then at last his journeys would be over. Ιn the Greek folkore stories, St Nicholas was a professional sailor who grew tired of the sea and its plagues and decided to live away from it. He then took an oar and started walking inland looking for a place where its people would not know what an oar is. Finally he reached a place where people described the oar as plain wood, and upon this, Nicholas decided to stay there and become a hermit.
The cathedral of St Nicholas in Didyma of Argolis is built in the same place where geographer Pausanias located the once temple dedicated to Poseidon. In fact, one of the cathedral’s walls is the ancient one surviving time and erosion to date. Recently, archaeologists unearthed in Sozopol, Bulgaria, the well-preserved remains of an ancient altar possibly belonging to Poseidon’s temple. The ancient ruins are located only a short distance away from the Christian church of St. Nicholas.