December 25th, 2009. The Christmas trees were up, decorations covered the windows in the neighborhood, and everyone was filled with holiday cheer. One might think I was in America from this description, but far from it, I was in Turkey. Now, to those who may not be aware, many of the ancient traditions of the holiday stem from Asia Minor. Santa Clause, originally St. Basil in the Eastern Orthodox Church, hailed from Caesarea, modern day Kayseri near Cappadocia. To this day, a traditional Greek Christmas carol proclaims his miracle work in the lands of Anatolia. In fact, his feast day is celebrated on January 1st, the same day Turkey celebrates Christmas (or their version of it).
In honor of being in this ancient land, I enthusiastically headed off to church, not knowing what to expect. It was my first time going to a church service in Turkey, and the first time as a “minority” in a densely Muslim populated country. I will admit, it was a bit odd at first. Filled with so much excitement and joy for the annual celebration, the sounds of the neighborhoods were filled with the Muslim call to prayer. Of course I accepted this, and took it as a part of the interesting aspects of this year’s Christmas.
But my mind kept racing. Did an Orthodox Christian community still reside here?
I finally arrived to a small Dutch chapel, renamed Aghia Fotini (Saint Fotini). The amazing thing about this little church is that it was given to the Greek Orthodox congregation several years ago, as the original Aghia Fotini was burned down during the great fire of Smyrna. I stepped into the chapel, finding a few people sitting in the pews. I quickly sat down and looked around, wondering what these walls could say if they talked. Looking at the other attendees, I heard both Turkish and Greek being spoken, making it very interesting for me to wonder about the parish. As services started, more and more people came in, packing the small chapel into a religious festivity. I was amazed by the end of it; must have been over 100 people. The fire of faith still burned no matter how small.
Unlike a traditional Orthodox church with its domed tops and ornate Byzantine mosaics covering every inch of the walls, this church was like a colonial house, with pointed roof and stained wooden beams. The walls displayed a few icons, which were randomly hung on the walls, as well as a more traditional Orthodox altar. Although it was nothing compared to what you would find in America or Greece, there was a great beauty in its simplicity.
Another amazing aspect about the congregation was that it consisted of families. Not just men, or old woman, but full families. After services were done, I walked out into the courtyard, eagerly waiting to talk with people. Approaching them in Turkish, I asked if they spoke Greek, to which they quickly replied “Yes!”. Amazingly, many of the attendees were originally from Istanbul, but moved to Athens in the 1960s after the political unrest and Istanbul pogrom took its toll on the Greek community. Amazingly enough, their Turkish was still as good as native. The rest of the parish was either from Izmir or visitors from Chios.
The service was followed be an amazing Christmas dinner at Sakiz Adasi Café, where Greek, Turkish, and English were interchangeable. At some moments, I would forget one word in one language and speak in the next. It was okay, everyone understood.
And that was the point…Christmas this year was in Izmir, and it brought a wide range of people together. Being from New York, I may have been the strangest attendee, but it was great. Spending Christmas in the land of Santa Clause is definitely checked off the bucket list.