All around the city of İzmir, decorations began to appear about a month ago — for those places getting a jump on the season — and have reached a peak in the past week or so: trees with ornaments and lights, Santas, snowmen, and most of the other symbols we associate with this time of year. You might think that this would be odd in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim. Well, yes, I suppose it would be, if these were Christmas decorations. But no, no, these aren’t for Christmas! Do you see anything, anywhere, that says “Merry Christmas,” “Xmas,” “Noel,” or “Noeller” (the Turkish word for Christmas)? Since you’re not here, I’ll look around for you. Let’s see…..nope. I do, however, see some things that say “Mutlu Yıllar” (Happy New Year). That’s right: malls and shops are sporting New Year’s trees, and Santa, when he is done delivering gifts to the Western world, has only a few days to rest up before he delivers gifts here for New Year’s. (Apparently, though, many Turks have been taught that the Christmas holiday is celebrated on New Year’s in the rest of the world as well, so they may be unaware that they are calling poor Santa into action just when he should be resting.)
I saw this same phenomenon in Ukraine, where, back in Soviet times, the Soviet regime wanted to take away any observances of the Christian faith but didn’t want their children to be deprived of all the fun that came with Christmas. They quietly slid everything except the nativity scenes and the Christmas songs down one calendar line, from the 25th to the 1st. And what was there to stop them? Does wearing a jingle-bell necklace, or coloring everything red and green, or setting up a huge Santa in a courtyard, say anything about your belief in who Jesus was? It may be true that most of our Christmas symbols have some sort of historical connections to the Christian faith, but those connections are so blurred by time and transformation that most of us are unaware of the stories of Martin Luther and a tree, or stockings and a saint.
And so it is that I am surrounded by shiny ornaments and snowflake symbols, but we have classes as usual on Christmas Day this week. There’s nothing like experiencing life in another country to make you see things differently! At a Christmas fair at my church a couple weeks ago, I got some great Christmas art postcards done by a recent transplant from the U.S. to İzmir. In my favorite one, she depicts a Christmas tree with images of simit, a very popular pretzel/bagel ring covered in sesame seeds, and a cup of Turkish tea. So then, is it a Christmas tree, or a New Year’s tree, or simply a Turkish simit-tea tree? Who’s to say? (You can find more of her work at hasatgunu.com)
In any case, Christmas still holds its true meaning no matter what the decorations, or how they are designated. And these decorations may say “Mutlu Yıllar” to all the Turks walking by them, but to me, they are whispering, “Merry Christmas!”