December 15, 2006

Christmas in Turkey

As I was shopping yesterday for thank you gifts for the driver and the "hostess" of Frances and Ray's school bus (the hostess helps kids cross the street, avoiding the homicidal drivers, and makes the children sit quietly), I realized: THIS is weird. Christmas everywhere -- lights, trees, red-and-green. Even SANTA (who was, it must be said, born in Turkey). And this is where the Wise Men gathered before setting off to Bethlehem to visit the Baby Jesus.

Weird, you say? This is the Christmas season... But if we go far back in time, before Internet shopping, malls and Coca-Cola's ad campaign featuring the jolly home invader, we realize -- Christmas is about Christ, Christians and religion. Well, at least partly -- it's the pagan stuff I always liked the most (the nog, the cookies, the lights in the trees, to remind us Druids of spring).

And Turkey is a Muslim country. I.e., what is going on?

There is an excellent article about this in the San Jose Mercury News. Turkey has always been a crossroads of East and West, so it's not surprising that Turks sample liberally from European customs as well as their own past. One of my favorite places in Istanbul is the St. Saviour in Chora Church, now museum, where there are astonishing Byzantine mosaics. This one of Mary brought tears to my eyes -- how easy was it being Jesus' mother? Look at the saddle bags under her eyes and her downcast expression. So much for the "stiffness" of Byzantine iconography -- this portrait is of a real, living woman.

Belly dancers may not seem "festive" to those of us used to wrapping ourselves in flannels and watching "It's a Wonderful Life" for the umpteenth time. But you can't deny that such a custom is "merry" -- and it does get people moving! I especially like the part in the article about Turks "splitting the difference" between "the practices of Western Christianity, which celebrates on Dec. 25, and the Eastern Orthodox version, which marks the celebration on Jan. 7. It combines the (Christmas) celebration with New Year's."

What many here are also preparing for is the festival of the sacrifice, linked to Ramadan, which also falls at the New Year. Our friends tell us that all over Istanbul, people will be sacrificing sheep in the open (it must be done on dirt, not concrete, so apparently even freeway medians can be called into use). More "modern" Turks simply pay the butcher to complete the sacrifice in the slaughterhouse, then distribute the meat to needy families. You can actually do this in the CostCo style mega markets.

Interestingly, there is a scandal over the practice of sacrifice this week. At the national airlines, a maintenance supervisor recently took donations from his staff to purchase a camel, which was then sacrificed on the tarmac at Ankara's international airport. The sacrifice was thanks for the resolution of a dispute involving a fleet of planes associated with a deadly crash in 2003. The 700 kilos of meat were distributed to the poor, as is the custom.

But Turks wishing to be more "European" were outraged. "Is this brutal event something that serves the image of a contemporary Turkey on the way to membership in the European Union?" one parliamentarian raged to the media.

What fun! As one friend would surely comment, this was an outbreak of rampant Turkishness at all levels.

We are going to be in Prague for Western Christian Christmas, but plan to be back in Istanbul for "Turkish Christmas." Bring on the belly dancers!

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