Christmas in Turkey

December 25, 2014

Back when I lived in Istanbul in the 1990s, I used to love the anonymity of Christmas in Turkey. Perhaps not surprisingly, few people celebrate the holiday--about 99% of the country is Muslim, while many of the Greeks and Armenians in Turkey observe Christmas in January. In fact, most of the people that I knew in Turkey didn't realize that Christmas was December 25th. They knew that Christmas existed, but thought it was January 1. 

So, Christmas Day is pretty much an ordinary work day. That's okay, though. Indeed, because Santa Claus and a lot of other Christmas themed-stuff has been appropriated into New Year's celebrations in Turkey, I still saw a lot of familiar-looking decorations during those years. Even the plainclothes police get in on the act in Turkey.

The first couple of years I lived in Turkey, I dutifully went to work, unwilling to take a day off and lose money--I was working as an English teacher back then, and was paid by the hour. As time passed, however, I decided to take the day off and give myself the holiday. 

Christmas in Turkey provided unexpected enjoyment. I didn't grow up in a very religious family, and prior to living in Turkey never really identified myself as "Christian." I mean, I realized that I nominally was one, but that was never a way that I would have seen or described myself. In Turkey, however, other people described me as a Christian and asked me things about "what Christians think" and how Christians do things, so eventually I guess all of this started to have something of an effect on me.  

Taking Christmas Day off work in Turkey felt great. Far from not being so special due to the lack of festivities, the relative anonymity of the holiday made it more important to me.  Rather than view the holiday as a focal point of stress or forced festivity, I saw it as private-time. The fact that hardly anyone even knew that it was holiday made it all the better, as far as I was concerned. I felt like I had my own secret holiday. 

So, instead of going to work I'd relax at my apartment in Teşvikiye. I'd buy something extra-extravagant from the pastry shop for breakfast in the morning--maybe a little meat pie or two--and then I'd go home and spend the morning doing whatever I wanted. Back in those days, this meant studying Russian, reading the Turkish newspapers, and listening to the Nutcracker and other classical music on my tape player. I had a little ornament--an egg-like thing that I had bought the first time I went to Russia--and hung it from the switch on my halogen lamp. It's still the only ornament I put on my little tree at the Borderlands Lodge in Montana. 

Gas canister New Year's Tree
Much to my surprise, I even started going to Church--the first time I had ever done anything like that on a holiday. Growing up as a pretty secular Presbyterian, I'd gone to Sunday school as a kid and had never attended services since then. Now, however, I found myself observing Christmas in part by drifting into the big Catholic Church on Istiklal Caddesi, the main drag off of Taksim Square. I wouldn't actually take part in any services or even stay very long, but I liked the idea of there being a place where this holiday was recognized--where other people were in on my secret. For once in my life, I felt like something of an exotic minority. 

Since moving back to the US in 1999, I've been in Istanbul on Christmas Day on a couple of occasions. Both times I did things similar to what my routine had been in the 90s, always getting a charge out of the occasion in a way that is lacking when I'm in the US. In particular, I miss the personal feeling I had about celebrating my own special day that hardly anyone else knew anything about. As strange as it might sound, I often find myself missing these Turkish Christmases and what they meant to me.  

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More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge 

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