Can we believe in Santa Claus?: We have found his tomb. Now let us seek the real person, says Peter Hebblethwaite

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THE REPORTED discovery of the tomb of the original Santa Claus, on the Turkish island of Gemile Adasi, has great importance, for it should bring us closer to the real historical figure from whom our 'Santa' is derived. Nicholas or Nikolaos - his name means 'victor for the people' - was Bishop at Myra in Asia Minor in the 4th century. But remarkably little is known about someone who has become so popular a saint.

The Belgian Jesuit scholar, Pierre Delooz, holds that we know nothing about him except a name and the date when he was bishop. The real saint is inaccessible, he says; the legendary saint is entirely 'constructed'.

True, the posthumous life of Nicholas, which really takes off and soars with his translation to Bari in southern Italy on 9 May, 1087, has been more important in fixing his 'image' than his actual life.

Even before his remains arrived in Bari, St Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors in the Aegean. He soon became the patron of the French province of Lorraine and of children everywhere. He has become one of the most loved characters in European history.

Apart from Nicholas, his name survives in Nicole, Colette, Colin, Nikita, Klaus and other derivatives. But it is only in the past hundred years that he has fallen into the ultimate degradation of the ho-ho-ho Santa Claus in the department store grotto.

As with most myths, that of St Nicholas contains some links with the real person who died on 6 December 345, the date of his 'birthday into heaven' and ever since then his feast-day. A large body of bishops, a sort of mini-council, gathered to give him a good send-off. They proclaimed him a saint on the spot, by acclamation as the custom then was, to the applause of the people.

But can any of the stories about him be believed? Early Byzantine hagiographers were more like advertising copy-writers than modern historians. They were writing for the edification of Christians, and to promote their local shrine.

The stories about Nicholas's miracles set out to demonstrate that if you prayed hard enough at his shrine, you too might be rewarded with a miracle. Myra, and then Gemile Adasi were presented as among the top shrines of Asia Minor, the places where the canny pilgrim should go.

None the less, the Byzantine hagiographers cannot but throw some light on the social and historical background of the period, even if only in passing. The number of children Nicholas traditionally saved from being pickled or turned into pies, for instance, reflects a society in which famine could drive people to cannibalism.

The children in the cellar who 'sprang to life' at the sound of his booming voice were probably drugged: children who escaped the butcher's knife could be kidnapped and sold into slavery or prostitution. These threats were facts of life in the Roman Empire. So Nicholas's concern for children is not 'constructed' at all: it mirrors the grim social reality of Lycia.

Nicholas showed himself to be a social reformer in other ways. Two bad harvests in succession left grain stocks badly depleted. Nicholas organised the storing of the reserves and introduced rationing. When nothing was left, he implored Providence for help. As if in answer to his prayers, a ship carrying wheat from Egypt to Constantinople was driven by storms into the port of Andriake, not far from Myra. Nicholas persuaded the captain to sell him the grain, which again he rationed, preserving enough for the next spring sowing.

If defending one's polis or city is being 'political', then Nicholas was highly political, the 'liberation theologian' of the 4th century. He exposed the graft and corruption of the empire, acted as God's consul, the defender of the weak, the 'voice of those who have no voice'.

He was also a very practical man. When unreasonable taxes were imposed on Myra, he went to Constantinople, refused to be fobbed off with underlings, and persuaded the Emperor to reduce the taxes. He performed a conjuring trick to impress the rather simple-minded Emperor.

Byzantine hagiography had three basic elements: the saint vanquishes the devil; he is ascetic, usually in the desert, and his life is an imitation of Christ. This pattern is seen in Nicholas's life.

The devil sought to burn down the city of Myra. Looking out of his window, Nicholas saw traces of fire and smoke rising from the plain on which Myra stood. He made the sign of the cross, and the rumblings ceased. Myra is a highly volcanic area.

Nicholas does not seem to have spent time in the desert, nor was he notable for his abstemiousness - he had a good cook. But his desert equivalent was a concentration camp. In 316 the Eastern Emperor Licinius rose up against Constantine, his western colleague, invoked the old Roman gods and imprisoned or killed the Christians in the last great wave of persecution.

Nicholas, already a bishop, spent eight years in prison. Because he would not yield, he was kept alive and beaten daily all over his body and face. He still bore those scars long after his triumphant return to Myra. His biographers report that his 'face was the colour of vermilion'. Santa's ruddy face is not evidence of rude health or hitting the bottle. These are beating scars. So he was Christ-like - the essential condition for holiness - in sharing in Christ's passion, as well as in his love for children.

Nicholas also had an ecumenical role. He took part in the Council of Nicaea in 325. He was sent as the Council's Greek-speaking emissary to meet the Bishop of Rome (whom it would be premature to call 'the Pope'). On his way there and back he passed through the port of Bari, which is why its inhabitants so wanted his mortal remains. He can reasonably be presented as the patron of Orthodox- Catholic relations.

He would have known about events in distant Britannia Major. The Emperor Constantine determined to build a great church in Jerusalem to bypass the rivalry between Rome and Constantinople, his old and new capital. Nicholas was present at the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 332. Also present was the Emperor's mother, Helena, who had brought a troop of scholars to the Holy Land in search of relics of the true cross. In her suite were people who could have briefed him about events in Britain.

It is high time that Nicholas was rescued from the fairy grotto, where he languishes in commercialised futility. Perhaps the discovery of his tomb will prompt a closer look at the historical figure behind the legends.

(Photograph omitted)