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Santa Claus is here to stay in Japan, as well as in the December festive city scenes of much of the developed world. And while the background to Santa Claus is increasingly better known, a most recent archaeological discovery helps throw more light on the early historical origins and background of the Santa celebration and tradition.
The practice of venerating the early 4th century Greek Saint Nicholas (and the derivative Dutch Sinterklaas and pre-cursor to Santa Claus) who lived in Lycia or modern-day Demre, Turkey and who is the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, merchants, in many of the Balkan and Central European nations, is believed to have been a Christian replacement for pagan deity worship, and the Bulgarian remains represented the takeover of worship buildings that housed the older pre-Christian pagan deity, Poseidon*. A new archaeological discovery in Bulgaria (see news report posted below) of the well-preserved remains of what is believed to be the altar to Poseidon’s temple, located virtually at the doorstep of a Christian church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, supports this theory.
Poseidon holding a trident. Corinthian plaque, 550-525 BC. From Penteskouphia currently in the Louvre Photo: Wikipedia
From the Wikipedia:
“The historical Saint Nicholas is commemorated and revered among Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Christians. In addition, some Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches have been named in honor of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, pawnbrokers and students in various countries in the Balkans, Central Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary), and Eastern Europe (Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia), as well as in parts of Western Europe (Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, and Portugal). He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Burgas, Beit Jala, Fribourg, Huguenots, Kozani, Liverpool, Paternopoli, Sassari, Siggiewi, and Lorraine. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.
The Dutch St. Nicholas holiday tradition, a variant of the pan-European St. Nicholas custom, filtered into the United States through the many European immigrants who guarded their cherished customs, and in time turned into the current celebration of Santa Claus. A number of common characteristics between the Dutch St. Nicholas and Santa Claus festive celebrations can be discerned, click here to read about them.
How Sinterklaas morphed into Santa Claus (Extreme Llft sculpture by Ron Hendriks) Photo: St Nicholas Center Collection
Fit for a god: Archaeologists find Poseidon temple in Bulgaria A summary and excerpt follow below:
Archaeologists think an ancient building found in Sozopol, Bulgaria, could have been a temple for Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. A large and relatively intact altar recently discovered in the building led to that conclusion, said National History Museum Director Bozhidar Dimitrov. The Roman empire’s official shift from polytheism to Christianity in 330 A.D. sparked the destruction of many such temples, which were replaced with Christian worship sites. Greek Reporter blog (12/16)
By A. Papapostolou on December 16, 2012 In Bulgaria, News
One of the buildings excavated in the Bulgarian Black Sea town of Sozopol appears to have been a temple to Poseidon, going by the discovery of a large and relatively well-preserved altar to the Greek god. This is according to Bozhidar Dimitrov, Director of Bulgaria’s National History Museum. Archaeologists found the building in front of the medieval fortified wall of the seaside town, Dimitrov said.
He said that the numerous pieces of marble found during excavations indicate that after the declaration of Christianity as the office religion of the Roman empire in 330 CE, the emperor’s order to destroy the temples of other religions was carried out, followed by the building of houses of worship dedicated to Christian saints, with iconography with features similar to that of the ancient gods.
Dimitrov said that in Sozopol, there was an example of how a temple to the Thracian horseman in the centre of the old town was converted into a church dedicated to Saint George. He said, according to a report by local news agency Focus, that in the case of the temple to Poseidon – the god of the sea – the time of its destruction saw the building of a Christian church a very short distance away, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of fishermen and sailors. The statement about one of the latest archaeological finds in Sozopol is the town’s newest headline-maker on the archaeological front this year….”
(Sources: Sofia globe, Focus)
Sources & References:
Saint Nicholas (Wikipedia)
Domenico, Roy Palmer (2002). The regions of Italy: a reference guide to history and culture. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 21. ISBN 0-313-30733-4. “Saint Nicholas (Bishop of Myra) replaced Sabino as the patron saint of the city…A Greek from what is now Turkey, he lived in the early fourth century.”
St. Nicholas and American Christmas customs (St. Nicholas Center)
“In mid-November Dutch television broadcasts the official arrival of St. Nicholas and his helper Zwarte Piet live to the nation. Coming by steamer from Spain, each year they dock in the harbor of a different city or village. Wearing traditional bishop’s robes, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to be greeted by the mayor. A motorcade and a brass band begin a great parade which leads Sinterklaas and his Piets through the town.
Nearly every city, town and village has its own Sinterklaas parade. He usually arrives by horseback, but occaisionally he comes by boat, carriage, moped, or helicopter.
In the following weeks before St. Nicholas Day, December 6, Sinterklaas goes about the country to determine if the children have been well-behaved. He and his Zwarte Piet helpers visit children in schools, hospitals, department stores, and even at home. Bakeries are busy making speculaas, molded spice cookies, for the season.
During this time children sing Sinterklaas songs and put their shoes next to the window or door, or, by the fireplace or heater, along with a nice drawing, a wish-list and a carrot or hay, and maybe a saucer of water, for the horse. If St. Nicholas happens by while checking on their behavior, the next morning children may find chocolate coins or initial letter, candy treats, pepernoten, and little gifts in their shoes….
The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5th, St. Nicholas Eve, with festive family parties when gifts and surprises are exchanged. In the Netherlands, unlike other places, adults as well as children join in the fun. As the Dutch like an element of surprise, a small gift may be wrapped in a huge box, or it may be hidden and require following clues to discover where it is.”
Poseidon, god of water and the sea as well as of earthquakes, was an important deity for the sea-faring Greeks. He lived at the bottom of the ocean and used his trident – a gift from the Cyclopes – to rule the waves. He used his trident to create straits, ports, islands and springs.
Although Poseidon is a greek god, according to Greek mythology, he is the son and product of the union of Cronus/Kronos and Rhea…and may thus have been of Mesopotamian/Middle Eastern/Anatolian origin. From Kronos, Poseidon received the dominion of the sea upon the division of the cosmos…which suggests a foreign borrowing. Kronos is connected to a festival called Kronia held in honour of Kronos to celebrate the harvest, and associated with the Canaanite-El/Hurrian-Sumerian-Anu sky-gods. Thus, Poseidon is believed to be a Phoenician-semitic derived deity. When Greek writers encountered the Levantine deity El, they rendered his name as Kronos. According to other sources, Cronus during Hellenic times, was the supreme god of Byblos (Syria) and was depicted on the coinage of Antiochus IV (175-164 BC) nude, leaning on a scepter, with three pairs of wings, two spread and one folded.
Alternative theories from the Wikipedia suggest an Indo-European or Anatolian provenance:
“Given Poseidon’s connection with horses as well as the sea, and the landlocked situation of the likely Indo-European homeland, Nobuo Komita has proposed that Poseidon was originally an aristocratic Indo-European horse-god who was then assimilated to Near Eastern aquatic deities when the basis of the Greek livelihood shifted from the land to the sea, or a god of fresh waters who was assigned a secondary role as god of the sea, where he overwhelmed the original Aegean sea deities such as Proteus and Nereus. Walter Burkert suggests that the Hellene cult worship of Poseidon as a horse god may be connected to the introduction of the horse and war-chariot from Anatolia to Greece around 1600 BC (Source: Burkert, Walter (1985). Greek Religion)”
Poseidon is said to have inherited the powers from Rhea, mother of Poseidon who hailed from Minoan-Crete and who was thought to be behind the delphic oracle at Delphi, is thought to have its origins in Gaia the pre-Indo-European Great Mother goddesses of Mesopotamia-through-Anatolia (James Mellaart, Marija Gimbutas and Barbara Walker), or Cybele, the Anatolian or Phrygian earth goddess. According to Wikipedia, “in historical times, the resemblances between the two goddesses were so marked that some Greeks regarded Cybele as their own Rhea, who had deserted her original home on Mount Ida in Crete and fled to Mount Ida in the wilds of Phrygia to escape Cronus. A reverse view was expressed by Virgil, and it is probably true that cultural contacts with the mainland brought Cybele to Crete, where she was transformed into Rhea or identified with an existing local goddess and her rites.” Rhea is also associated with the pomegranate, a fruit native to Iran and Iraq, and cultivated from the Caucasus and throughout the Middle East, as well as the Mediterranean region of southern Europe…
Photo credit for Poseidon temple image (top of the page): Focus news agency