If you’ve lived here for more than a year you’ll likely have had at least one conversation with a Turkish friend or colleague about Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve in Turkey. Despite your best efforts at explaining that Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December and New Year’s Eve on the 31st, some of them will still confuse the two. This misunderstanding means that some Turks choose not to do anything special on New Year’s Eve in case they’re celebrating the birth of Christ. It’s probably also why I see Christmas decorations being put up after the 25th. There’s no fear of bringing on bad luck by ignoring the edict of taking down the tree and all decorations by the 12th day of Christmas when you don’t know when Christmas was.
The festive season can be a hard time for expats, because even if you aren’t religious, it’s a much-loved occasion when we think of family and friends. Understandably, most of us organise our own Christmas festivities which are as close to the way we’d spend the day back home as possible. Being honest, it never is the same, so maybe it’s time to establish some new traditions, incorporating the best of all worlds.
One good place to start is on December the 31st. Although the dates for celebrating Christmas and New Year vary country to country according to the calendar in use, this particular night is on almost everyone’s festive list in some way. In Turkey, most people spend the night with family and friends, either at home or out at a restaurant with dinner and dancing. At home the time is spent eating (of course), watching New Year’s Eve TV specials and playing tombola, a game similar to bingo. Organised parties either end sedately soon after midnight or continue on into the small hours of the morning.
There are two different traditions I’ve come across in Turkey that would make interesting additions to any celebration. The first is to open a pomegranate on New Year’s Eve. Doing so ensures richness and wealth, the idea being that as there are lots of seeds inside this fruit, the one becomes many. Some people, especially Armenians, throw the pomegranate onto the ground as hard as they can to break it open. They believe the more pieces there are and the further the seeds spread, the richer they’ll be.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that people give red underwear on New Year’s Eve. I’d always thought fire engine red lingerie was a gift restricted to Valentines Day, but I’ve since learnt red is popular because it symbolizes health. Women wear red underwear on the night and other new clothes to ensure well-being in the new year. The Turkish slang for underwear is don, and is derived from the word donanmak, meaning to spruce oneself up. When combined with the word table it means to have a rich table, laden with bountiful plenty.
However you ring in midnight on December 31st, I hope you have a happy and healthy New Year.
You can learn about life in Istanbul, everyday culture and traditions in my collection of essays called Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.