Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Turkish Christmas

Christmas in Turkey, a 99% Muslim country, is a lackluster affair. More accurately, it just isn't. It is a painful time of year for foreigners, as it slowly sinks in that this year there will be no pretty lights and trees and family gathered round, no Elvis crooning "Blue Christmas," no hot mulled wine, no mistletoe under which to kiss or not, no tantalizing window displays in the shops to drive one into a frenzy of consumer indecision. It is just another day, another work day, a fact that can be understood by the intellect but is totally incomprehensible on a visceral level. Work? On Christmas??????

Our school is not an international school, but a Turkish one -- and therefore Christmas is just another work day. Out of consideration for the foreign staff, however, the board has made Christmas Day a half day of school, and a full day holiday for the foreign teachers. But Christmas Eve is just another day at the salt mines, and this, I confess, is hard to handle. I am not an ingrate, and certainly appreciate the concession to our faith and customs, however small. But Christmas Eve. More special, more ambience-filled than Christmas Day, and of all days, the day when you do not work. You shop, you cook, you wrap; you are together. Faces glow. Tummies ache with Mexican Wedding Cake overload. Carols are hummed as you go about your Christmasy errands. But this year, here, for us, was just a normal Wednesday. Which happens to be the most stressful day of my week, leaving me exhausted and panting at the end of it, so it was with a sense of bewilderment that at the end of this Wednesday workday, as I sat in my teacher chair flattened, it suddenly dawned on me, 'hey, it's Christmas Eve!'

Had it not been for my dear friend C., Christmas would probably have galloped by, celebrated by me alone with a large glass of spirits and a DVD. But she's a dreamer and a planner, and a fighter -- she does not give in to depression and naysaying. And so she orchestrated an escape to the charming village of ┼×irince, an old Greek village an hour from Izmir that has been largely restored to its former loveliness.

Six of us rented an entire house for a night. It was the kind of house I can imagine living in: all wood and stone, cozy niches in the walls for vases or candelabras or statues of the Virgin Mary, heavy beams across the ceiling, frosted glass in the ceiling of the upper floor to let the light stream in, a hamam style bathroom, all granite and made for sitting and splashing yourself with warm water; a fireplace ready for use, a basket of wood just outside the door; no TV!; no phone; just simplicity, a place that insists that you simply be, with yourself, with your company. Like the kings to Bethelehem, we brought offerings -- ginger cookies, bottles of bourbon, Christmas CDs, card games and books. We settled in, lit the fire, toasted our toes on the hearth, managed to hear Elvis crooning "Blue Christmas" after all (followed by the Vienna Boys Choir), and slowly, slowly, the spirit of Christmas began to seep in. It was like having been stuck out in the snow on a winter's night, and being brought in from the cold by a good Samaritan. The chill is in your bones; it takes some time for the warmth to permeate down deep. So was it with us...but it did. And by bedtime the very marrow of my bones had been warmed by the glow of Christmas, in all the right ways -- and it occurred to me, maybe a little ironically, that in this non-Christian country, my Christmas felt more authentic than ever before. We brought nothing, really, except ourselves and a few simple items to share. We had no commercial distractions. We found ourselves in this little white town, nestled into the curving side of a hill. Our house was perched at the very top, and we could look down on the rest of the town, the white houses, the occasional grazing horse or donkey or sheep. I couldn't help noticing the resemblance to the artistic renditions of Bethlehem that I have seen. The stars were myriad, dazzzling in their brightness, the air clean and crisp. This, I thought, is as Christmas as it gets. Even the sadness I felt at being away from my family was mitigated by the intensity with which I felt them in my heart on that starry night. A sense serenity and optimism filled me. Peace and hope -- isn't that the essence of Christmas?

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