Demre is the village between Kaş and Finike which identifies the site of the ancient Myra. In Roman times Myra was on the sea. It was the port where Paul and his companions Luke and Aristarchus changed ships on their way to Rome in about 60 AD.
St. Nicholas is supposed to have been born in Patara about 300 AD; as an adult he became the Bishop of Myra. While his name is still a familiar household word, his fame does not rest on his great theological wisdom (as did many of his contemporaries’ renown like Basil and Gregory). Rather he is known for his miracles; he continues to be loved because he cared for people in need. He is the patron saint of Greece and of Russia, and the protector of children, scholars, merchants and sailors. People fearful of being robbed when they are traveling seek his help.
Little is known for certain about ST. Nicholas. He is supposed to have ben persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian and kept in prison because of his faith; later he is supposed to have been present at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. In old pictures he is often shown standing in a tub with three boys. According to legend these boys were murdered and concealed in a tub of salt belonging to their butcher. Nicholas restored them to life and healt. Legend also says that he surreptitiously gave three sisters enough gold for their dowries to save them from lives of sin. This may be the origin of giving presents in secret on the eve of December 6th – his day.
The importance of St. Nicholas spread in several different forms. In the 11th century people from Bari stole the remains found in his tomb and carried them back to Italy, arriving there on May 9, 1087 when the town put on a big celebration to welcome them. The townsfolk built a new basilica in Bari to commemorate that event. About the same time, English people had a custom of electing a Boy Bishop on St. Nicholas’s Day. He was dressed up in the bishop’s robes and paraded around the town blessing all the people. He had possesion of the cathedral of his town; he and his fellows officiated at all the church ceremonies except mass for three weeks until the Feast of the Innocents on December 28. The custom lasted in England until it was abolished during the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th century. In Germany a smilar custom continued until 1799.
The 11th century Church of St. Nicholas in Myra has recently been refurbished; a church service there on December 6th celebrates his memory. In addition to the church, Myra/Demre is interesting also for the Roman theater, and for the rock tombs cut into the cliff above the theater. Of them, the Painted Tomb, a “house type”, has scenes of a family engaged in various activities.