In Turkey Who Is Santa?

A few weeks ago during the Christmas season, Suleyman Yeniceri, a Turkish Müftü or Islamic Provincial Religious Leader gave a video talk on the Internet about what he thought of Santa Claus or Noel Baba (“Noel Father”). Yeniceri stated in wonderful ignorance, “What kind of man is this Noel Father? He comes in a house through a chimney or window?.. According to our religion (Islam) an upright, good man must come in through the front door, invited by the family.”

From one perspective watching an Islamic leader seriously critique Santa Claus was hilarious. Most Turks that I spoke to laughed at the video. But this “Noel” holiday seems to be at the center of a bigger clash of cultures.

The tradition of the New Years Eve celebration in Turkey is a cultural import from the West. Consumerism has made New Years in Turkey a big deal. Turkish advertisers have imported the December 25th Christmas tradition and the North American Thanksgiving tradition into the modern Turkish celebration of New Years creating a hilarious mess.

Since Turks are a predominantly Muslim people the 25th of December passes uneventfully in Turkey. But December 31ST and January 1st are entirely different matters. In Istanbul on New Years Eve, crowds of young Turks blitz themselves to a silly boozy stupor. There is drug use and vomit, fighting and fucking, just like in the good ol’ US of A! God be praised I feel at home in Turkey on New Years Eve!

But.

The weird thing is the Christmas tree light everywhere on New Years. Turks call New Years Day “Noel” thinking they are celebrating a Christian holiday, though many are not sure why. The even odder thing is the pictures of Santa Claus everywhere on New Years Eve… Also many modern secularized Turks eat mounds of “Turkey Bird” on New Years. This is the only time in the entire year that Turks eat turkey. And why do they do this? Amazingly, they got it all from Hollywood!

Though it might seem funny to us, when Turks watch dubbed American films they find it difficult to differentiate between Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. But don’t laugh and blame them. I’m sure if we were to watch films from the Islamic World and try to copy holidays like Kurban and Ramadan we would have a lot of trouble too! Since Turks don’t get the differences they tend to shrug their shoulders and allow Turkish advertisers to throw all the supposed traditions of the West together into one big super New Years “Noel” Holiday.

And so you get Christmas Trees, Santa Claus, Turkey Bird and vomit all mixed in downtown Istanbul at about 4 am on January 1st.

However all of this copying and aping by secularists in Turkey has created quite a backlash from Turkey’s conservative Muslim establishment. In the afternoon of New Years Eve while walking on Istiklal Avenue (the main road of downtown Istanbul) a covered women handed me a flier. The flier asked the reader (who was ostensibly a Muslim) to think about what eating Turkey Bird on New Years Eve would mean. Could a Muslim’s eating turkey fowl on New Years make the Muslim assimilate easier into Western-Christian culture?

I was very confused by this flier. Turkey Bird on New Years Eve? Dude, I want whiskey on New Years. A Christmas tree and Santa Claus on New Years? I want College Football games and a College-aged pretty stripper whose name I won’t remember after the whiskey wears off!

Apparently Turks had seen too many American thanksgiving and Christmas films and gotten all the traditions mixed up and pissed off in their collective imaginations. I decided that I would have to solve this and enlighten them all. That was of course before I started drinking glasses full of Turkish Raki (pronounced Rak-uh) in the late afternoon on New Years Eve at my friend’s office.

Raki is a very strong distilled drink tasting like licorice and turning white when mixed with water. Many people started coming to my friend’s office. Some I knew. Some I didn’t. Everything turned into a New Years party.. Half of the people drank Raki. The other half were strong muslims and refused the alcohol, only drinking water and şalgam (a pickled Turkish veggie juice).

Whatever we drank we drank slow and ate plate after plate of food. Weather drinking Raki or Şalgam it was great to sit down and talk for hours.

One of my friends, an Armenian at the office party sat next to me and we drank Raki together. I showed my Armenian friend the flier I had been given. He laughed out load at it. “What is the connection in people’s minds that they think we Christian minorities of Turkey eat turkey on New Years? We don’t! There is no connection. We don’t even celebrate Christmas until January 6th in the Armenian church.” It was all just Hollywood and Consumerism playing with history and then ignorant Islamists taking this Hollywood created “history” and reacting against it explained my Armenian friend.

Actually the tradition of Santa Claus or Father Christmas can be traced back to Turkey itself explained another friend who identifies himself as a socialist/Muslim. On the Turkish southern coast in the 4th century C.E. Saint Nicholas was a church leader who – so the stories say – helped needy children.

The idea of Santa was taken from the east and brought into Europe after Saint Nicholas. Instead of being from the sweltering Mediterranean, Europeans decided jolly Ol’ Saint Nick was from the frigid north pole and brought toys for good little girls and boys on reindeer. My Socialist/Islamic friend went on to say that Europe owes a great debt to the Middle East. All of the West’s religion, tradition, alphabet, first science and mathematics come from the Middle East. But after Westerners took this information and learning they then burnt the cultural bridge between the two regions and said everything had originated in European Greece.

Obviously, concluded my Socialist/Islamic friend, Muslims and those who live in the Middle East were left behind in the past 200 years. As they have been looked down upon by the West, Middle Easterners (be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish or something else) have developed a culture of anger or backlash against European/Western traditions and the secularizers in their own cultures who native ape the Westerners.

I suddenly found that this conservative backlash against all things Western or perceived to be “Western” in a Middle Eastern influenced culture like Turkey to be quite normal. That a religious leader would think it appropriate to make a video criticizing “Noel Father” (Santa Claus) is not surprising. Müftü Suleyman Yeniceri’s comical and somewhat boneheaded speech is understandable as part of a train of thought which seeks to understand and fearfully defend a modern Muslim identity today.

The real issue behind Santa Claus in Turkey is modern consumerism and how consumerism changes peoples’ histories and creates conflicts in the modern world.

As for myself I was happy all night long. We had a long table of revelers. We drank our Raki or Şalgam. Our table didn’t have Turkish New Years “Noel” glitz. We didn’t have pretty silly Christmas lights or Santa Claus. I didn’t know what to make of our table. As I got drunker it made me laugh… What were we here? Leftists? Islamists? Christians? Even one American… But we had communion goddammit. And in a meaningless New Year there was meaning in our communion.

Haydi arkadaşlar kadehleri kaldırın! Herkese şerefe!

 

Yazar hakkında

Sean David Hobbs is a writer and multimedia journalist who lives in Istanbul. He works to chronicle the stories of the voiceless in Istanbul and can be reached at sean.david@istanbulvoices.org. His memoir about Istanbul called "Sex and Homeland" is his second book.

2 Yorum

  1. Jim White söylüyor:

    I had to laugh at your humerous description of Middle East meets West regarding Holiday traditions. The issue of Santa’s access to a proud Muslim home and when Turkey Bird is properly served had me in stiches. Of course, I try to be as respectful as I can of Muslim holidays and traditions. But, I have to also admit that I am sorely undereducated in such regard. So, my only point, is be any of the reasons or means right or wrong, I hope that both Christians and Muslims will improve on showing respect and appreciation for the positive aspects of both our wonderful cultures. The world is a very big place with lots of room for everyone to celebrate their lives, and others, as they see fit. God bless us all.

    • Sean David Hobbs söylüyor:

      I have enjoyed writing this section. Look for the ending tomorrow. I do hope all understood that some of what I wrote was tongue in cheek and used more for humor’s sake than anything else. Still there is an issue here and I have enjoyed uncovering it. Please let us know what you think tomorrow Jim when the article’s second section is finished.

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