Gunter and I first landed on Turkey’s shores in the summer of 2007. We confidently left Pacific Bliss “on the hard” in Marmaris Yacht Marina. The following spring, we returned to Turkey for the final leg of our sailing circumnavigation. While touring Istanbul, I was surprised to learn that tulips and St. Nick both originated in that country.

That spring, Istanbul was alive and glowing, in a festive mood. The city was celebrating its annual tulip festival, and colorful blooms were everywhere. Istanbul, with its bridges across the Bosporus Strait, straddles the two continents of Europe and Asia. After enjoying the city for two days, my husband Gunter and I took a ferry trip to view the city from the river. It was a sun-splashed Sunday. We spent hours relaxing and chatting about Turkey’s past and its hopes for the future. Much of the conversation centered around the peoples’ love and respect for Atatürk, a charismatic leader, military genius, and celebrated reformer who modernized Turkey. “He made Turkey a secular country,” our said proudly.  “As a result, Turkey will never be like the other Muslim countries; in fact, we look forward to joining the EU.” The future for Turkey looked as rosy as those tulips fronting every landmark from the Blue Mosque to the Aya Sofya.

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We ordered coffees, and while we waited for them, our guide changed to another topic, the legend of St. Nick. “Did you know he came from Turkey?”

“I had no idea!” I replied. “I thought the Saint might have come from Russia. Our own legend is that he and his elves and reindeer live at the North Pole.”

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“I know your popular image is of the big belly, the white beard, and his reindeer, but that depiction came from your Coca-Cola ads in the 1930s.  Here’s the real story: Centuries before the Ottoman Empire, St. Nick got his start as a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey. He was born a rich man’s son, but he took his inheritance and gave it to the poor, supposedly dropped down chimneys. Poor people in Turkey are very proud; they would not have accepted gifts if he had just handed them to him.”

We all take a sip of our Turkish coffees while we listen intently. “Mainly, St. Nicolas helped the children and gave them gifts.”

“Where in Turkey did he come from?” Gunter asked.

“There is a statue of him with children in Demre, a town in Southern Turkey, and the old Byzantine Church of St. Nicholas is there.  Lots of Russians go there, but it’s not big on tourism.”

Reportedly, the Islamist government of President Erdogan has worked hard to promote the country’s Ottoman history, but he has repeatedly ignored Turkey’s rightful place in Christian history. I don’t expect the current government to promote the St. Nicholas story.

This Christmas of 2016, I look back on that Turkish Spring of eight years ago. And I fear for Turkey’s future. Turkey is overwhelmed with problems—frequent terror attacks, huge populations of Syrian refugees, and mass arrests and incarcerations after a failed coup. All this makes the country dangerous and drives tourists away. I don’t know whether I’ll ever visit Turkey again, but the country and its people will always hold a special place in my heart.

A very merry Christmas to you and yours!

 

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