Artifact: The Changing Face of Old St. Nick


Credit: Karl Vick, Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

This statue of Santa–in the style made familiar by Coca-Cola ads, and postured like a Salvation Army bell ringer–stands year-round in the main square of Demre, a town in Turkey. According to The Washington Post, it recently replaced a bronze statue of the original, fourth-century St. Nicholas, who worked his miracles in that ancient city and has lent his name to the modern commercial avatar.

Santa's arrival is a relief to many of the town's Muslims, despite his Salvation Army pose: They prefer the plaster commercial image to the bronze Christian saint. Many of Demre's tourists, however, are Orthodox Russians who revere Nicholas and often prayed before the old statue; they want it back. German Protestants, for their part, tend to applaud Santa for his American-style exuberance.

Back in the U.S., Santa is regularly criticized for leeching Christmas of spirituality. Some critics even charge that he is descended not from Nicholas but from the saint's folkloric and rather satanic red-clad servant: the Krampus. Perhaps the last word in this unexpected mix of Islam, Orthodoxy, commercialism, and devilry should go to one of Demre's town fathers. "Noel Baba [Father Christmas] is our citizen," one bureaucrat assured the Post. "We respect him. We embrace him."