Start with the irony that turkey (the bird) is nearly unknown here in Turkey (the country). This will be my second straight Christmas in a country that’s barely aware it exists, and this one feels more strange and even less festive than the last one.
Last Christmas I spent at the tail-end of a month in Bali, having traveled around Asia for the full year before that. At least in Bali they get slightly increased tourism from Aussies and Europeans during the end of December, so the locals do know that it’s a special time for the Western visitors.
This year I find myself living in a small town called Kaş, along Mediterranean Turkey and I’m going through what I imagine is now normal for many expats in Asia. While December 25th is so huge in our part of the world that you are inescapably reminded of it every hour of the month, in other parts of the world (like this one) it’s just another day on the calendar.
Caught between two worlds
I’ve been invited to a traditional Christmas dinner party at the house of one of my expat friends, so on the day things will feel a bit normal, but in the run-up to the holiday there is nothing normal about it for me.
I’d imagine that if I were living in, say, Beijing, it would be understandable that there is no acknowledgment of Christmas, even though I’ve read that it’s actually catching on a bit in China now as it has already in Japan. Maybe those living in Dubai haven’t even the slightest hint of Christmas, but of course there you have a very dominant religion that has its own overt weekly traditions.
So the weird thing about being in southern Turkey during the Christmas period is that not that long ago this was part of Greece, and the town looks identical to European Mediterranean cities as far away as Spain. The weather has turned chilly and the Winter solstice is upon us, so it feels almost like “Whoville” where Christmas should be here, but for some reason just isn’t.
Odder still is the fact that the actual Saint Nicholas lived and worked (1,700 years ago) in a town (Demre) only about 50 kilometers from here. Yet I’ve seen not a single decoration anywhere in town at all, nor do I expect to. I visited St. Nick’s church a couple weeks ago, which was crowded with Russian tourists even in December, but not even a hint of Christmas.
And again, it would feel less strange if there was a dominant religion here other than Christianity, but the paradox of (at least this part of) Turkey is that they have the Muslim Call To Prayer five times daily, but it’s done in Arabic (a language no one here knows) and it appears to be ignored by 100% of the locals, save the guy actually warbling it.
I’ve just heard that a Santa-like character has started appearing in larger Turkish cities, though only in conjunction with New Years celebrations. Whether those are present soon in Kaş, it won’t likely make me forget that I really do appreciate Christmas traditions far more than I have ever been willing to admit.