You wouldn’t expect much activity during Christmas in Turkey, a country with a 99% Muslim majority. That’s why I was surprised to see people celebrating the holiday outside of the dwindling Christian community. In Istanbul, Christmas was alive and well. Christmas trees, Santa Claus, lights and the like were common in some districts of the city and inside many shopping malls. It all seemed like a great example of tolerance and harmony, but after enough experience in Turkey, the scenes on the street didn’t fool me.
Turkey is the country that’s the spiritual home of Orthodox Christianity. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has been located there since 330AD (it was founded by Saint Andrew the Apostle as the See of Byzantium in 38AD). There are many places in Turkey sacred to Christians, including the birthplace of the inspiration for Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas, and the Seven Churches of Revelation.
But in Turkey, Christmas can be a depressing time for Christians and even the secular Turks who choose to celebrate it. As a country that promotes its historic importance to Christianity and Judaism in order to draw in more tourism, and is constitutionally secular and “accepting of all religions”, there’s a good amount of hypocrisy. The government’s top cleric has attacked the holiday by proclaiming that Christmas is pagan and capitalist. An extreme Islamist youth group, the Anatolian Youth Association, protested against Christmas and Santa Claus in 2013 because they believe the holiday is destroying Turkey’s “Islamic identity”. In one district, Şirinevler, the local government went so far as to put up an anti-Santa banner.
Older Turkish citizens I have met, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, and mostly those who grew up in Istanbul in the 1940s and 50s, always told me wonderful stories of sharing Christmas, Easter, Kurban Bayramı, Passover, and many other holidays with friends who were believers of different religions. They would visit each other’s homes, share meals at the same table, and follow each other’s traditions. That all came to a stop with the government-sponsored anti-Greek pogroms in 1955 and the forced deportation of Greeks in 1964. From then on, Christians began to hide from public life and started muting their celebrations. I could see the joy in their faces and the happiness in their voices as they told me these stories and talked about how beautiful those times were. I could also see and hear their sadness as they lamented about what has happened since.
Unfortunately, in more recent times, Islamists, nationalists, and other groups seem to have become more and more vocal against Christmas each year. They’ve put up advertisements, banners, and signs against the holiday. Such statements and actions against Islam are prosecuted as hate crimes by the Turkish government, punishable by time in prison, as in the case of Turkish pianist Fazıl Say when he was found guilty of blasphemy via Twitter. But when it comes to protecting the beliefs of all others, the government is silent. In a season that’s supposed to represent joy and love, there isn’t much of it coming from Turkey.
The Turks who celebrate Christmas are typically secular and don’t celebrate for religious purposes. They don’t celebrate it on the 25th of December, either. They celebrate for the enjoyment and generosity of the holiday and they exchange their gifts on New Year’s Day. Some choose to put up trees and lights and some don’t. Some have a “Christmas dinner” and some don’t. Some say it’s acceptable to celebrate because Jesus was an important figure in Islam while others celebrate simply to welcome the New Year. They’ve put their own unique twist on Christmas and have created their own special holiday.
Since there’s nothing religious about Santa Claus (Noel Baba in Turkey) or Christmas trees (Yılbaşı Ağacı, or New Year Tree, in Turkish), are they really celebrating Christmas in the true Christian sense? Absolutely not. Are non-secular Turks overreacting? You be the judge. Secular Turks who celebrate their version of Christmas continue to do so in spite of protests and warnings by many Islamists and non-secular Turks.
In the end, the fight by Christians and secular Turks to celebrate Christmas in Turkey is similar in many ways but their reasons are very different. Secular Turks are fighting for their own personal freedoms and prevention of intrusion into their personal lives while Christians are fighting for their right to celebrate and the existence of the Christian community, period.
That sums up my observations of Christmas in Turkey, but now I want to tell you how I actually celebrated the holiday with my expat and Turkish friends in Istanbul:
My friends Selen and Tyra decided to have a Christmas party at their home in Kurtuluş. A mix of traditional Christmas and Turkish foods were cooked in a potluck dinner. Of course, being in a Muslim country, Christmas ham was out of the question. Finding a turkey in Turkey was also impossible, so we had to substitute it with chicken. Tyra made stuffing and Selen made bulgur salad. Other Turkish specialties like börek and çiğ köfte made an appearance on the table.
Christmas music was played and everyone sat around the table, chatted, and some even exchanged gifts. The dessert table was a huge hit. Tyra’s bourbon chocolate balls, M&M cookies, and homemade pumpkin pie were gobbled up quickly.
For the expats, it was a wonderful get-together away from family to celebrate one of the most important holidays of the year, both in a traditional and religious sense. For the Turks, it was a fun social gathering to celebrate friendship, the end of a long year, and the possibilities of the coming year. There really was nothing religious about our Christmas gathering. Besides alcohol being offered, there was nothing I would consider disrespectful about the party to Muslims (and the observant Muslims who avoid alcohol didn’t raise any concern). It was a great time spent among friends and nothing more. If that’s threatening to the moral fiber of a constitutionally secular Turkey that prides itself on being “tolerant” and “religiously diverse”, I really don’t know what else to say.