Celebrating Christmas a second time in Izmir brings a different experience to this expat. Having lived in Turkey for almost a year, the culture shock has come and gone, with Turkey becoming more of a home than a “cultural experience”. However, when people ask me about the holidays, they are left dumbfounded.
“There are Christmas trees here. Santa Clause, lit up streets, the whole nine,” I described. “Really? But it’s a Muslim country,” my friends respond. They’re absolutely right, however, never underestimate the power of Christmas (marketing) culture.
Although Turkey is predominately a Muslim country, Christianity flourished out of Asia Minor, with Christmas being celebrated since the 3rd century. In fact, Santa Clause (St. Nicholas in the West, St. Basile in the East) lived in what is today Kayseri, located in the center of Turkey. He remains an important saint in the Eastern Church, mentioned in many Greek Christmas carols as the saint from Kayseri or Anatolia.
The central symbol of Christmas (thanks to heavy marketing), is of course the Christmas tree. Many homes in several parts of Turkey erect Christmas trees (called “New Year’s trees”), displaying colorful blinking lights in their home windows for everyone to see. I have to admit that when I first heard the term “New Year’s Tree”, I cringed a bit. How can people slap on a different name like that, completely misrepresenting the holiday?” I thought. It something that Bill O’Reilly would call an “attack on Christmas!” but then again, if you look at the history of the Christmas tree, you’ll learn that it never had a Christian origin. And this is where the fun begins…
There is a wealth of documented information about Christmas Trees being first used in Western parts of Europe (Germanic culture), for celebrations honoring the Winter Solstice. Over time, the tree was adopted into Christian culture as a symbol of birth and life of God on earth. Today, it’s mainly a tree saturated in decorations, honoring the “culture” of Christmas rather than any religion aspects. However, being in Turkey, I have been told that Christmas trees are a Turkish invention dating back to nomadic shaman-Turkic culture. Turkish historians claim that it was originally known as a “Turkish Wish-Making Tree”, where people would wish for good things for their friends and family. According to these historians, this was a practice held in Central Asia since the 3rd century B.C.E, brought over to Europe by the migrating Turkic tribes. It was during the time of December 22nd, that people also placed gifts under white pine trees, singing songs, and celebrating a time of rebirth. Since the culture of St. Nicholas and the Christian church evolved as an institution in Asia Minor, which became Ottoman Empire, the claim of the “Turkish” Christmas tree draws some credibility. Nonetheless, there are many Turkish historians who completely disagree with this assessment of history. Even as an intermediate scholar on Eastern Christianity, the idea seems a bit far fetched as Christianity was the main religion for over a 1,000 years before the Turkish armies made their conquests in Anatolia.
Whether a Christian tradition or a Shaman Turkish custom, it seems very few people can escape the culture of Christmas. The shopping centers are mobbed almost every day, redundant holiday music follows you wherever you go, and an image of Santa Clause is displayed for all the kids to see so that they can beg for gifts. The culture of Christmas is upon, no matter which country or religion you are a part of, or how you try to rationalize it.