An Istanbul Christmas

The mysterious mirrored ball with hat which appeared shortly before Christmas. It appears to have thudded to earth from a great height, displacing cobblstones upon impact...

Because Turkey is approximately 98% Muslim, Christmas is not celebrated here, at least not in the way we Americans are used to. I was confused and curious though, to see what Christmas would be like since many of my Turkish friends would refer to Christmas and the Christmas season.

About two weeks before Christmas I saw my first Christmas decoration go up. A small artificial tree with blue lights appeared in the window of the Pudding Shop, a well-known restaurant on the main street of Sultanahmet. Soon lights and snowflakes and decorations appeared in the malls and every once in awhile I would hear a Christmas song playing in a restaurant.

Things that never appeared:
Christmas commercials on television
Christmas sales
After Christmas sales
Rudolph, or any other reindeer

Also, no live trees. When I asked a friend if Turks ever have live trees he laughed and said there are more Turks than trees so if they had live trees for Christmas there would be no trees left in Turkey. My very favorite decoration was the ladder hung with lights and Christmas balls in the back of the pastry shop; it was festive, clever, and creative.

My students were very surprised when I told them school would be closed for a week. This year the Muslim holiday Kurban Bayram came right before Christmas so my language school closed for a full week in recognition of the Turkish holiday but also because most of the teachers come from countries (England, America, Canada) where Christmas is a big deal. However, the Turkish universities were open, so my friends who teach there were working on Christmas day.

I had planned to take Christmas day easy, but it turned out I had to take care of a little business so I headed out to my café with my laptop. It was festive because of the lights and decorations, but other than that, the streets bustled with business as usual. The café workers on my usual path had been wishing me merry Christmas intermittently for a week or so, but there was no special recognition that today was the day. In fact, every so often someone had asked when Christmas actually was, and if it was right to say merry Christmas now, or when they should.

I worked away until my battery ran low, but when I moved to the table near the only electrical outlet in the place I found that there was something plugged into it. I considered leaving but wanted to get some more work done. When I asked if I could unplug the one little tree which seemed to be the only thing occupying the outlet, they said no, but then came back in five minutes and unplugged it for me, causing ALL the Christmas decorations in the place to go dark. Apparently everything was connected to the one little tree. So the only Christian in the place was responsible for taking the sparkle out of Christmas.

It turns out that New Year’s Eve is the holiday that everyone really celebrates. In fact, some of the “Christmas” trees don’t go up until after Christmas, they are put up for the New Year celebrations, which are pretty much the same here as in America. Some people go out to big parties, some go to restaurants, and some stay home. I had a relatively quiet night with friends, but from the sound of it some of the celebrations are as rowdy and loud as in New York, with drunken revelers on the streets and people dancing the night away. One difference was that Santa appeared. There’s a pub on a busy corner where a man in a suit and hat stands outside, inviting and welcoming passersby. Because I see him almost every day, we’ve come to know each other a bit and have a regular dialogue where we exchange greetings and how-are-yous in Turkish. On New Year’s Eve he turned up in a Santa suit, complete with beard, and instead of our usual greetings I got a kiss from Santa. It was a week late, but a kiss from Santa is always welcome.


sultanahmet said...

Great country
Great City
Great Location.

Anonymous said...

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