Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Happy What? (On Christmas in Turkey and the New Year's Claus)

Although this is a Muslim country, and one would not expect to find hide or hair of Christmas come December 25, this is not entirely the case. Although certainly not to the extent that one would see it in Christian countries, the symbols surface here and there -- Christmas trees start cropping up in shops and apartment windows. Lights are hung at shopping centers. At the supermarket, there is a giant bin of Christmasy odds and ends -- reindeer candles, little snow-covered porcelain house candle-holders, plush Santa Clauses, mini Christmas trees, shiny colored ornaments.

I talk with my students about this. That tree, I say; the one with all the lights and ornaments. What's that all about? It's a New Year's Tree, they reply. Really. Apparently the idea of a brightly decorated pine tree is so appealing (really, it is, isn't it?) that it has been adopted here, but stripped of its Christian association and made into a New Year's symbol. Further questioning reveals that the gift-giving tradition of Christmas has also been incorporated (they are New Year's gifts, of course). Okay, I think indulgently, let them have their pretty lights and gifts, even if it was our idea, and I am quite magnanimous about all of this until Santa Claus comes up in conversation. Ladies and gentleman, meet New Year's Claus. This is when I flip -- how dare you corrupt Santa Claus?! He's ours! You can't have him. I am irate. My friend C., ever more of a passionate firebrand than I am, is even more irate. She rants about this on the way to our Christmas getaway in Şirince. I try to put my own feelings aside and reason with her. Look, I say; there are no new ideas. We constantly recycle and revisit things that other people have thought of. Look at fashion -- the same styles keep coming back, with tiny variations. Christian symbolism was not invented by Christians -- it was taken from pre-Christian religions, then given a makeover in order to take on the symbolism that we wished it to have. We are constantly borrowing from each other; get over it, says wise old me. Still, she pouts. Father New Year???? Secretly, I can't help but agree. And dammit, she exclaims, don't friggin' take the evergreen! Decorate a bloody olive tree, or a pomegrate, but leave our evergreen alone! She's got a point. Where's the originality? Olive trees abound in this part of the world; wouldn't they be a logical choice?

Then there ensues a long conversation about Islam and holidays. It begins with the observation that there are no lavishly celebrated holidays in this religion. Bright lights and pretty things are antithetical to Muslim piety, it seems. The most you get is a string of lights and some extra nice chocolate displays in the stores around Bayram time. And where are the rich traditions? Perhaps there were some that have been lost; perhaps there are some that we do not see. But it seems to us, as outsiders, that there is something lacking, an absence of stories and mysteries and high celebration. We have the story of the immaculate conception, the trip to Bethlehem, the infant in the manger, the three kings, the shepherds, the star; we have the modern tales of the all-seeing Santa Claus and his nocturnal visits to deposit presents or lumps of coal. We stoke the imagination with these stories, we provoke both goodness and wonder. Where are these stories in Islam? I know of none. It saddens me to think of growing up without them, for they are some of my most cherished cultural possessions. It seems to me that we humans need the rich stories, the rituals, the pageantry. In a culture where those appear to be absent, what fills people's souls? What makes them wonder and dream? Is this, perhaps, the source of the hüzün, the melancholy, that grips the Turkish people and indeed from all appearances, most Islamic nations?


At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Expat^Square said...

Yes, this is a dominantly non-Christian society after all. As such Christmas Day is a regular work day here. Santa and the Xmas tree are all labeled as New Year's Santa and New Year's Tree. Gift giving to friends and family takes place on the New Year's.

There are few places in Izmir you can observe the Xmas the way you know it. Various churches in Izmir hold traditional Xmas Eve Mass, and I believe celebrations, too. Some Western consulates, although there are very few of them in this city, throw Xmas parties. I am not sure if US Consulate in Izmir offers that kind of service.

I am happy to read that you were able to find five friends and get yourselves to a nice, quiet, secluded small town of the city in order to enjoy your Xmas Eve. It was just another (unique? different?)experience in life.

Being away from your family, and your loved ones at this time of the year is the hardest. Friends, as close as they might be (and good to have them), do not cut it. Still better than nothing.

Happy New Year!


At 10:32 AM, Blogger Nomad said...

Given the fact that the gift-giving part comes from ancient Rome (Pre-Christian) holiday called Saturnalia and the whole business with the tree is most likely a Christianized pagan celebration, then I suppose it is hardly a case of Islam "stealing" anything.
Also wasn't Saint Nicholas born around Antayla?

Riddle me this: What do pawn shops and Christmas have in common, besides the obvious need to hock your possessions to buy your kiddies the latest breakable toy?

In his most famous exploit however, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him. Being too modest, or too shy, to help the man in public, he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window onto the man's floor.
One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably the third time the father lies in waiting, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.

For his help to the poor, Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold.

After all, aren't all holidays rather strange? What is the connection between evergreen trees and the birth of an alleged son of God? And colored eggs, bunnies for Easter? In the end, as the Turks well know, it provides a nice excuse for taking some pleasure from the blank grayness of winter.


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