Living in a foreign country it’s usual to feel homesick sometimes, especially now when the end of the year are just around the corner. For many of us this is a time of celebration, to observe our beliefs and be with family. However during Christmas in Turkey there are few if any of the familiar symbols used in our own countries. Those we do see are often disconcertingly misplaced, like phone companies offering Jingle Bells as a New Year’s Eve ring tone and men giving their wives fire engine red underwear to wear on the night, instead of on Valentine’s day.
In order to stave off the expat blues, I decided to take a closer look at what happens in Turkey. Unexpectedly, I found an incredible richness and diversity in the range of cultural traditions in Istanbul. In keeping with life here, it’s not as straightforward as it seems. The complex reality is best summed up by Susanna*, a Turkish woman of Spanish descent, to whom I spoke. She said, “As a Jew born and raised in Istanbul, I celebrate New Year in the Western way. Decorating the Christmas tree, exchanging gifts, baking gingerbread men cookies – these are all Christmas traditions for me”.
Not surprisingly, she doesn’t describe herself as a traditional Jew, but she does celebrate Rosh Ashanah, the Jewish New Year. As per their calendar, this year it fell in autumn. So in September, when everyone else was caught up with going back to school and university, Susanna sat down to dinner with her family to mark their respect for their relationship with God, and the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. Unlike other families hers exchanges small gifts, and while she doesn’t go to the synagogue, she does eat apple jam. Eating apple jam “is a common practice on Rosh Ashanah”, she says, “as it symbolises the time to forgive and have a fresh start with sweetness to come”.
Katerina, an Orthodox Christian from Georgia told me about her Christmas. Based on the ‘old’, that is, Julian calendar, the Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th. Katerina’s grandmother was Polish and Catholic, so in the past they ate ham at Christmas, as well as the more traditional turkey. After her grandmother died they stopped eating pork but the Georgian traditions remain. This means almost every dish includes walnuts. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sweet course or a spicy one, walnuts are an essential ingredient believed to symbolise strength and power.
She also goes to church on December 24th, the Georgian Orthodox Christmas Eve according to the ‘new’ calendar. This date is shared by Turkish Christians, and is when pastor Turgay Üçal’s congregation attends a special service at his church in Istanbul, followed by a concert. The next morning families enjoy a big breakfast together and exchange gifts. This is very similar to Syrian Christian traditions, where people also go to church and spend hours singing songs of worship. Milad*, a Syrian now living in Istanbul, told me people there start preparing for Christmas a month beforehand. They spring-clean and decorate their homes and even their streets with fairy lights and artificial Christmas trees. People make special shopping trips to buy new clothes, and snacks and drinks to be consumed throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
After church, they either go back to their homes or on to restaurants. They spend the remainder of Christmas Day visiting close relatives and exchanging Christmas text messages. A person dressed as Santa Claus roams the streets and visits specific homes to deliver presents to the children there. Christians in Syria don’t generally exchange presents, but they do invite their close relatives, friends and neighbours into their homes. And the only thing Milad’s father wants for Christmas is all of his children, their partners and their children sharing fellowship around the same table.
Although the dates for Christmas and New Year vary according to the calendar used, December 31 st is on almost everyone’s festive list in some way. Many Turkish people think Christmas is New Year, which explains the Christmas decorations appearing in shopping centres after December 25th. According to Pastor Turgay, this misunderstanding means that some Turks choose not to do anything special on New Year’s Eve in case they are celebrating the birth of Christ.
Food and thoughts of the future also play a large part in the traditions of many cultures. In Syria, December 31st is a half day when everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, prepares special meals, goes shopping and to the hairdresser to get ready for the night. Around nine o’clock people start letting off fireworks and some even shoot real bullets in the air! People either listen to pop music or watch talk shows hosted by Syrian or Arab stars. Some have astrologists predicting the future which, odd as it seems, is reminiscent of Georgia.
There, Katerina, explains, Georgians follow the Chinese horoscope to know which of the twelve zodiac animal signs falls in the coming year. Astrologists appear on TV informing people which one it is, because they need to know what animal to acknowledge and respect. For example, if it’s the year of the snake people buy silver coloured, shiny fabrics and clothes. If it’s the year of the bull, there should be no beef on the table, and so on.
They start cooking two days before New Year’s Eve and the whole house must be sparklingly clean. The table should be full of food, all featuring walnuts as at Christmas, and no one starts eating until midnight, as a sign of respect. Katerina said that when she first came to Turkey, “It was very unusual for me that my husband started eating at eight o’clock. I said it’s not twelve o’clock yet and he said but I’m hungry”. Similar to Scottish tradition, Georgians believe the first person to enter a house in the new year brings luck for the rest of the year, be it good or bad. Consequently they prefer to have a young boy enter first, because his innocence brings good fortune. It’s not unusual for people to ‘reserve’ a neighbour’s young son to be the first person to enter their home, as soon as possible after midnight.
Whatever the religion, the name or the date, the new year symbolises a new start, new resolutions and positive hopes for the future. It might be the Jewish Rosh Ashanah in autumn this year, New Year’s Eve on December 31st, or even January the 2nd, the Georgian ‘destiny day’, when the way you spend this day determines how you’re going to spend the whole year. Whichever one, I agree with Susanna who said, “New Year … is not a religious event, but rather a global ceremony marking the end of a ‘lived year’”.
This year when I invite my close Turkish friends around one night somewhere between December 25th and the 31st, and we celebrate Christmas in Turkey with a mix of home cooking and pot luck, Kris Kringle and Christmas carol CD compilations featuring interesting heavy metal renditions of old favourites, I won’t be surprised if someone adds yet another unusual interpretation of a Western tradition into the mix. It seems that no matter where you live, end of year and new year celebrations mean family, friends and food, served with lots of laughter and joy.
*names changed at interviewee’s request
This piece first appeared under the title “Celebration Time” published in Lale: Magazine of the International Women of Istanbul, November/December, 2014, pp. 28-30.