The twinkling lights of Christmas may brighten the streets of İstanbul, but for many of the Muslim city's Christian minorities celebrating the holidays can prove challenging.
In celebrating Christmas in İstanbul, the issue is not one of restriction of religious expression or lack of opportunities, various Christians told Sunday's Zaman. In fact, Christianity has a rich history in Anatolia, the birthplace of many Christian Apostles and saints like Paul of Tarsus and Nicholas of Myra. A total of 65,000 Armenian Orthodox, 15,000 Syriac Orthodox, 8,000 Chaldean Catholic and 2,500 Greek Orthodox
believers reside in Turkey. There are also members of other denominations, such as Bulgarian Orthodox and Georgian Orthodox along with Protestants.
The republic has taken a number of long-overdue steps to expand the rights of its Christian minorities, such as the decision to return property belonging to non-Muslim foundations that was confiscated after 1936.
Despite all this some Christians said they still long for the sense of community that most consider inherent to the holidays.
The landscape of İstanbul around this time of year resembles that of any Western city that marks the Christian holiday. Strings of white lights drape the facades of buildings, evergreens dressed in colorful balls and garland adorn homes and hotels and inflatable Frosty-the-Snowman and toy Santa Claus (Baba Noel) figures smile from store shelves.
But for some Christians the “New Year” decorations, as they are called in Turkey, is a strange concept.
American expat and Protestant Crystal Gomez said the evergreens and garlands are essentially the glitz without the substance of Christmas. “Despite the fact that I was surrounded by Christmas trees and lights and pictures of Santa Claus, the fact that most people around me weren’t aware of the deep cultural significance these symbols have, or even the holiday they are supposed to be attached to, made me feel like I was in on some secret,” she told Sunday’s Zaman.
Syriac Orthodox: Village vs. İstanbul Christmases
Syriac Orthodox Christian Zeki Aydın, who works at a Bible shop in Taksim, said Christmas in his village in Mardin really was the most wonderful time of the year.
“Back east, we waited for Christmas all year long,” Aydın recalled of his holidays in Mardin nearly 25 years ago.
“We were poor and could not afford nice things like apples, oranges and new shoes. We always lived off what we could grow in the fields,” he said. While his family and village were poor, Aydın said Christmas was “always special.”
As a child, Aydın reminisced about walking from house to house with the other children, bags in hand, to collect small gifts such as apples and candies. For New Year’s, Aydın said the children of the village would travel in groups with a designated “Baba Noel,” complete with a beard of wool and white robes, this time in search of coins.
Aydın recalled being woken up one Christmas morning by his older sister. “She woke me up, handed me a slice of meat and said, ‘Now you can eat meat!’”
But after moving to İstanbul, Aydın said he was disappointed to find the Christmas spirit he had eagerly anticipated in his village had all but disappeared. “After I came to İstanbul, I felt no more excitement. Christmas is just like any other day here,” he said.
This Christmas Aydın will journey back to his village in eastern Turkey.
Greek Orthodox: Christmas used to be like a carnival
An elderly, petite Greek Orthodox Christian by the name of Dimitra smiled faintly from her armchair as she recalled what she described as lovely Christmases past. “Christmas used to be so much nicer and more colorful in İstanbul. There was so much excitement it was like a carnival,” she told Sunday’s Zaman.
Dimitra fondly recounted the exuberant festivities and the lively throng of people who once made up her religious community. When she was a small child, her parents would dress up as Santa Claus and give her and her siblings baskets filled with puppets and pillows stuffed with candies, Dimitra said, laughing. Like Aydın, Dimitra said she remembers her family being very poor as a child. “But Christmas was still beautiful,” she added.
Now, however, Dimitra said the landscape of İstanbul during Christmas is almost unrecognizable to her with the diminished religious community. “Now there are so few of us and even fewer activities. Christmas now means going to church and then returning home,” said Dimitra, whose family has now moved away as she continues to live alone in her home in Kadıköy.
Like many Christians in Turkey whose families live elsewhere, Dimitra said she will travel to Athens to celebrate Christmas with relatives and friends.
Turk Emre Altun said he is surrounded by family and friends but he still feels alone during the holidays.
Altun, whose entire family is Muslim and is from the eastern province of Erzurum, said his family was not exactly supportive when he converted to Christianity. The family and community-focused Christmas holiday for the 24-year-old Christian Turk, therefore, is especially hard. “Yes, it’s hard,” Altun told Sunday’s Zaman. “I wish we had a tree I could decorate and that mom cooked for Christmas like she does for other holidays. But I don’t like to think about it too much,” he added.
Altun, who has not yet decided on a denomination of Christianity, will be spending this Christmas with his Protestant church community.
Let in on the ‘secret’ of Christmas
But at least one Christian, Gomez, has been able to capture that special feeling of Christmas even while celebrating in İstanbul.
Gomez admitted that, like the other Christians, she felt rather alone on her first Christmas in Turkey exactly one year ago. “Celebrating Christmas in İstanbul for the first time felt very private and personal,” said Gomez, who ended up spending Christmas with two co-workers, drinking mulled wine and watching “A Christmas Story.”
The day began quite unlike any other Christmas Gomez had celebrated in the past. While most Christians spend the holiday visiting with family and friends, Gomez found herself waiting alone in her apartment for a plumber since her “landlady didn’t seem to understand the significance of spending that specific day with friends, being far from home.”
But the 23-year-old Californian did not allow the small setback to ruin what she described as a “treasured secret” in İstanbul. “Rushing back to my friends’ place on public transportation and picking up the ingredients for our big Christmas dinner seemed to heighten the anticipation. The monotony of life that was going on as usual around me only served to make the day all the more special,” she said.
One year later, however, Gomez said her second Christmas has more of a community feel. “Instead of being part of a secret club, I feel connected to the people around me. We are all in on the ‘secret’ of Christmas,” she said.