Archaeologists in Turkey have made a discovery which could settle a century-old debate … and disappoint millions of children around the world.
They have unearthed what they say is likely the tomb of the original Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas, beneath an ancient church in Demre, southern Turkey.
Demre, previously known as Myra, in Antalya province, is believed to be the birthplace of the 4th century bishop.
Cemil Karabayram, the head of Antalya’s Monument Authority, said the shrine was discovered during electronic surveys that showed gaps beneath the church.
“We believe this shrine has not been damaged at all, but it is quite difficult to get to it as there are mosaics on the floor,” Mr Karabayram told the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News.
He said he is very optimistic about uncovering Saint Nicholas’s remains, but warned it will take some time to scale each tile one by one and remove them as a whole in a mold. “We have obtained very good results but the real work starts now,” he said, adding that the temple is almost fully intact but currently inaccessible due to the presence of stone reliefs that need to be preserved. “We will reach the ground and maybe we will find the untouched body of Saint Nicholas.”
Professor Sema Dogan, excavation leader, was stunned by the finding and believes the discovery could boost tourism to the area.
At the time of his death in 343 A.D., Saint Nicholas was interred at the church in Demre, where he lay undisturbed until the 11th century.
Previously, the remains were believed to have then been smuggled to the Italian city of Bari by merchants in the year 1087. Christians visit the site of what was thought to be his final resting place in Bari’s Basilica di San Nicola.
However, Turkish experts are now claiming the wrong bones were removed and those taken abroad belong to another, local priest, rather than the legendary bishop.
Saint Nicholas of Myra was known for his generosity towards children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated on his feast day, December 6.
He was popularised in 16th century Europe as Father Christmas, who gave presents to young children. Dutch arrivals to the United States called their version of Saint Nicholas “Sinterklaas,” which later became Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas is depicted in modern images as a portly old man sporting a big white beard and spectacles.