When my husband and I moved to Turkey, in addition to saying farewell to friends and family, I said goodbye to Christmas.
After all, Turkey is 99 percent Muslim. While packing to leave, I tucked a few ornaments into my suitcase. Maybe I could find the top of an evergreen tree to decorate when the time came.
The first months passed in a blur. When I wasn’t studying Turkish and trying to navigate a dazzling but utterly foreign city, I clung to the Internet, checking and rechecking Facebook and e-mail. By fall, my culture shock had eased, and at Thanksgiving I even attempted a local eggplant dish. That weekend, I passed a billboard advertising Krispy Kreme doughnuts. On it was a snowman wearing a bright red scarf and the caption “Let it Snow.” It reminded me that Christmas was coming.
Although Turkish people had been friendly and welcoming, I braced myself for a bout of homesickness.
One early December day, we stopped in traffic at a roundabout in our neighborhood. As we edged closer, I was surprised to see a worker standing in the basket of a cherry picker placing ornaments on a stylized conical Christmas tree. Tiny white lights were already in place, twinkling brightly at 9:30 in the morning.
Inside our local mall, a two-story Christmas tree laden with gold stars and thick red garlands now stood on the main floor. Poinsettia blooms, hundreds of them, had been pinned to the balconies and arches. From them hung strands of tiny white lights. Thousands of Western expatriates live in Istanbul, and I knew this festive atmosphere was a commercial effort, but it felt soothing. It looked like my holiday errands wouldn’t be as solitary and bereft as I’d thought.
Other signs of Christmas quickly became apparent. On Istiklal, the city’s historic pedestrian thoroughfare, rows of blue and white lights had been strung above the narrow street. At our local grocery store, I stared in amazement at an aisle devoted entirely to Santa hats, wrapping paper and ornaments. When I shopped for men’s sweaters, a middle-aged clerk confided, “Ever since I was a child, I loved Christmas!”
It was fun to observe the Turkish take on our holiday. One store window displayed a Christmas tree made of wooden dowels with red and white wooden balls on their ends. Another featured a tree made entirely of overlapping red leather shoes.
Several malls had life-size mechanical Santas beside which people — it looked like mostly adults — posed for pictures. Santa Clauses made of ceramic, wood and felt were everywhere. Perhaps that shouldn’t have surprised us. Turkey was Christian for a millennium, and the original St. Nicholas was the fourth-century bishop of Myra, a town in southern Turkey.
Christmas music burst forth in shopping centers and at Atatürk International Airport. Most tunes were secular, but some lyrics were apparently not well-understood, as we heard Loreena McKennitt’s devout “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” over and over.
As the holiday approached, a Turkish colleague presented me with a music box that played “Deck the Halls.” The elegant Ciragan Palace hotel hosted Christmas carolers from the British School. Nearby stood a gingerbread mansion looking like the Houses of Parliament. The adjacent cafe sold white chocolate Christmas treats adorned with red frosting that read “Mary Christmas.”
Turkish friends wished us “merry Christmas” right up until the New Year.
Every year in the states, talk-show hosts rail against “taking Christ out of Christmas.” Intense commercialism can certainly overwhelm the religious aspects of the holiday. But it turns out that the secular aspects of Christmas are the most portable. They transfer easily to places with other beliefs. Many Turks love the sentimentality and the celebration of family and friends that Christmas provides, and their enjoyment added immeasurably to our festivities.
It is odd that now, after being back in Minnesota almost a year, when I look at Christmas photos of Turkey, I miss it more than ever.
I miss that cozy season far from home when strangers made us feel so welcome.
Susan Narayan lives in Minneapolis.