Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Joebells

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Santa Claus aka Saint Nickolas

Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated either this evening or tomorrow in many European countries, even in the US.  Small gifts are left in shoes, boots or under pillows. Our sons each received a chocolate wrapped Santa the morning of Dec 6th.  Saint Nicholas was the inspiration and the man behind our current day Santa Claus.  

Saint Nicholas, of Greek heritage, was born 270-280 AD in Patara, Asia Minor, located along the southern coast of today’s Turkey.  He lived during a stormy time in the Roman Empire.  His family was wealthy, but his parent died when he was very young, leaving Nicholas a sizable inheritance.  Nicholas was raised by his uncle, Bishop of Myra now named Demre, Turkey.  Nicholas dispersed the money to the sick, those in need or were suffering.  He dedicated his life to serve God.  One story mentions he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Legends abound of his generosity and kindness, how he helped or saved sailors, children and travelers.  Miracles occurred when Nicholas was present.

Nicholas was an interesting character before and after death.  He assumed the role Bishop from his uncle but was soon imprisoned for five years by Roman Emperor Diocletian.  The ambitious Roman general was attempting to eradicate Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

A furious Nicholas got into a fist fight with heretic Bishop Aries at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  His nose was broken and he spent one night in jail.  The next morning his jailors found he had escaped his chains.  Emperor Constantine, a convert to Christianity, ordered Nicholas reinstated as Bishop of Myra. During his life, Nicholas was known as Saint Nicholas of Myra, Nicholas of Bari or Nicholas the Wonderworker.  

Saint Nicholas died December 6th 343 AD in Myra. Archaeological evidence indicates he may have been buried in a tomb high on a hill in Gemiler Island, Turkey.  In the 600s, because of the threat of Arab attacks, he was moved to Myra.  A sarcophagus in the Saint Nicholas church became his ‘final’ resting place, but volatile conditions between Rome and Seljuk Turks still prevailed.  The Italian cities of Venice and Bari fought over the relics.  Sixty two sailors and two priests on three ships from Bari Italy implemented a ‘holy robbery’ and daringly stole St. Nicholas’s major bones. They were brought to Bari in 1087 and put into a crypt.  A majestic church, the Basilica di san Nicola was constructed over it. Still stands. The bones are reputed to exude a rose scented water with healing properties bottled and sold in the church gift shop.  

Not to be outdone, the Venetians in two hundred ships on the way to Palestine (the First Crusade), stopped by Myra.  Following the rose scent, they broke through layers of floors under the Saint Nicholas church and discovered a copper urn filled with small bones, engraved with Saint Nicholas’s name.  At the end of the Crusade they returned to Venice (1101) with the urn, presently under the High Alter in the Church of Saint Nicholas in the Lido.  Other small bones attributed to Saint Nicholas began appearing across western Europe, including Ireland.

Luigi Martino, Professor of human anatomy at the University of Bari examined the bones from Bari in 1953 and 1957 and from Venice in 1992.  He concluded the remains from both places are of the same man. If indeed they belong to Saint Nicholas, the saint was over 70 when he died, 5 foot 4 inches in height, slender to average build, wide cheek bones, broad forehead and a healed broken nose!   He also suffered from many decayed teeth and chronic severe arthritis in his spine and pelvis.

Commemorating the day Saint Nicholas died, gifts are distributed to children in much the same way as he would have.  Because it happens in early December, Saint Nicholas Day doesn’t interfere with the other Christian religious celebration, Christmas, which arrives a few weeks later. It is a bit confusing to kids when Santa Claus comes at night followed by Jesus appearing in the morning amidst presents, feasting, church services and football.  The Saints and Vikings play in the afternoon.

Dunes of Avon

I knew I wasn’t at the beach anymore when I awoke to hear crows, not seagulls.  My week in the Outer Banks was fantastic.  The weather was mild and most sand stayed off the roads.  It was not a good week for shells, but had I wanted to collect jellyfish, jackpot.  The next house we stay in will have fewer steps.  Fifty steps up to the bedrooms at the top level.  I know.  I counted them each time I had to go up or down, gripping the hand rails or wall.  To get to the beach, one had figure out a way to the shore without climbing the dunes.  The previous storms had destabilized the vegetation covered sand mounds.  In an effort to preserve the hillocks, boardwalks and stairways had been built.  More steps. But this allowed me to appreciate all the Gaillardia in their brilliance tucked behind the dunes.


My Gaillardia tribute last week elicited a response from a reader in the Outer Banks.  He sent me an article about Joe Bell.  Written by Philip Howard and posted January 19, 2012 in the Village Craftsman Newsletter, the Gaillardia on the barrier islands is called the “Joe Bell Flower.”

In 1850, Joe Bell was born in Washington, North Carolina. At fourteen he lied about his age and enlisted in the Confederate Army.  A family friend spotted him and he was sent home with a calvary patrol. His dad and uncle were in the watchmaking and jewelry business.  Joe joined the family firm when he was in his twenties.  After a brief fling with a local girl, Joe suddenly left the area.  First it was to the Klondike in 1896 but he found no gold.  So, he opened up a watch repair and jeweler’s shop.  When gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska, he moved his business there.  From Nome he sailed on ships until finding a home in San Francisco until 296 miles of the San Andreas Fault opened during the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Too many fires. This prompted Joe to move to New York, then back to North Carolina where he opened yet another watch repair shop.  His horse died.  His girlfriend left him for someone else. Whatever happened after that who knows, but by the 1920’s Joe was living in Ocracoke Island.

Save the Dunes

Joe never married.  He brought Gaillardia seeds with him to Ocracoke where he planted them in his island yard.  The plants spread to neighbor’s yards, then throughout the village and along the highway to Hatteras Inlet. By the 1970’s, Joe Bell flowers were growing up and down the Outer Banks.  Today, when you see a Gaillardia in bloom, call it by its island name: “Joebell.“

Jellyfish washed ashore

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at