Christmas Celebrations, Turkish Style

Islamic nationalists ‘convert’ Santa Claus.

Russian depiction of St. Nicholas, late 1400s or early 1500s, National Museum, Stockholm. (Wikipedia, Bjoertvedt)

Russian depiction of St. Nicholas, late 1400s or early 1500s, National Museum, Stockholm. (Wikipedia, Bjoertvedt)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – This holiday season, Christians across Turkey gathered to hold services and celebrate Christmas, even as a small group of protestors “converted” that long-time Christmas mainstay, Santa, to Islam.

On Christmas Eve, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Greek Orthodox Church led a divine liturgy at the Church of St. George in İstanbul. The Patriarch greeted attendees, many of whom came from neighboring Greece. Across town, scores piled in to the St. Anthony of Padua Church in downtown Istanbul for Catholic Mass. The overwhelming majority of those in attendance were worshipers from different Christian congregations within the city, but also included among the faithful were a notable number of Muslims.

Christmas services were also held in “traditional” churches in Midyat, Mersin and İzmir and in house churches across the country. At St. Anthony’s, an elderly Muslim woman named Nuran Saydam told the Sunday Zaman that she was visiting the church because she was a citizen of the world.

“I feel good, spiritually, by coming here,” she told the weekend edition of the Turkish daily. “This is a house of God. Everyone here comes to worship God. My Lord does not turn anyone away here.”

Each year in Turkey, the Christmas and New Year’s season offers a study on inter-religious relations in the country. Most Muslims in Turkey seem to simply ignore the Christian holiday, while others view the celebration as a cultural curiosity. Others still, mostly hard-line nationalists and Islamists, see Christmas as a threat to the very existence of Turkey.

Cebrail Sağlam, who was at the St. Anthony Christmas Mass, identified himself as an atheist to the Zaman and said he was one of those who viewed Christmas as a cultural curiosity.

“To be honest, I just came because I’m curious about what kind of scene it is here,” he reportedly said. “It’s a different culture for me, and I wanted to see it. I don’t have any religious beliefs; I lost all my belief due to recent events. I was never very pious, but after all this violence, I’ve lost my belief altogether.”

As part of the holidays in Turkey, nationalists and Islamist protest the holidays. Sağlam said he found this annoying.

“If someone is a Muslim, why wouldn’t you celebrate the birth of Jesus if he is considered a prophet in Islam?” he said. “I think that if he is prophet, then his birth should be celebrated as well.”

On Christmas Day in the village of Midyat in eastern Turkey, near the border of Syria, fliers condemning Christmas and friendships between Muslims and Christians were found posted on streets of Syriac-Christian neighborhoods.

“We will not celebrate a Christmas that belongs to the crusader mentality that massacred Muslims,” the fliers read.

In Turkey, New Year’s Eve is celebrated much like Christmas is elsewhere. Public spaces are decked with Christmas trees, garlands and wreaths. It isn’t uncommon to see the occasional mall Santa posing for photos with children. As part of the celebration, as with Christmas, presents are exchanged. In almost every way, the holiday is identical to Christmas with the exception of the conspicuous absence of any religious iconography or reference to Jesus.

New Year’s Eve’s close resemblance to Christmas is not lost on some in Turkey. Earlier today, men from the nationalist-Islamic Grand Unity Party, dressed as Ottoman janissaries, chased “Santa” through the streets of Bolu Province on New Year’s Eve. Santa was arrested and brought before an Islamic judge known as a qadi. The qadi asked Santa what he was doing, and he answered that he and other Christians were celebrating the birth of Jesus by wearing red clothes and drinking alcohol.

Two people summoned by the qadi to testify in the “trial” said they were not being forced to celebrate, so he let Santa go. As Santa was surprised by the benevolence of the decision, the judge explained that there was no room for violence or injustice in Islam, and Santa immediately recited the Islamic Shahada, thus converting to Islam.

Ironically, the historical precursor for the fable of Santa is St. Nikolaos, a fourth century bishop of the city of Myra now known as Demre in modern-day Turkey. The son of a wealthy merchant and one of the signatories of the Nicene Creed, he is credited with leaving anonymous gifts left for children, especially poor ones, in Myra.

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