“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,” Sunday’s Zaman reports.
By Alyson Neel
12/25/2011 Turkey (Sunday’s Zaman) – 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 Krystell Jimenez 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.