In a country where Christians make up less than 0.2 percent of the population, it is no surprise that most Turks do not celebrate Christmas. The secular alternative of New Year, complete with Christmas-style decorations and parties, has become quite popular in recent years. But Istanbul is still home to the “mother church” of all Orthodox Christians—the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople—and traces of Byzantine and Greek culture are spread across western Turkey. In other words, there might be some surprising connections between Turkey and Christmas—how many do you know?
Santa Claus the Turk?
Okay, he wasn’t exactly Turkish. Saint Nicholas was the Greek bishop of Myra, a town in southwestern Anatolia, in the fourth century. Stories of miracles performed by Nicholas spread into northern Europe, where the local people mixed the stories with their own winter legends. Over time this mixture of Greek and Nordic beliefs produced the familiar figure of Santa Claus. Fifteen centuries after Saint Nicholas, his hometown became part of the new Turkish Republic—Myra is now called Demre, in Antalya province.
Of turkeys and Turkey
Despite their name, these festive birds actually come from North America. But the story of how turkeys came to be named after Turkey is an interesting one. Some historians claim that the African guinea fowl was sold by Turkish traders, leading Europeans in North America to call the similar-looking bird they saw there “turkey.” The Turkish word for turkey is hindi, suggesting that Turks thought the bird came from India. If we want to use the most authentic word, we should try the North American Blackfoot tribe’s omahksipi’kssii, which means “big bird.”
The bright red and green leaves of the poinsettia make it a popular Christmas decoration. Originating in Central America, these plants used to be called flores de noche buena or “flowers of the holy night,” referring to the night of Jesus’s birth. So what is the connection with Turkey? Well, in Turkish the plant is called Atatürk çiçeği: meaning Atatürk flower. This name stems from Atatürk’s work in promoting the flower as a decorative plant in Turkey. In fact, the name poinsettia also comes from a politician: US diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett popularized the plant in North America.
Lumps of delight
Perhaps because of an association with the three wise men who visited Jesus from the east, some western families enjoy Turkish delight on Christmas. But these decadent sweets were first known in England as “lumps of delight,” a term we can read in the Charles Dickens novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In modern Turkish they are usually known as lokum, which derives from an Arabic word for “mouthful” or “morsel.” The earlier Ottoman Turkish description was rahat ul-hulküm, meaning “comfort of the throat.”
Christmas services in Istanbul
For those who want an authentic Christmas experience in Istanbul, there are services at different churches across the city.
- St Antoine Church, the city’s largest Roman Catholic church, is one of the most beautiful places to celebrate Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. A service of hymns begins at 8pm on December 24 and the celebration of Jesus’s birth begins at 9pm. There are four services on December 25: in English at 10am, in Polish and Italian at 11:30am, and in Turkish at 7pm. İstiklal Caddesi No.171, Beyoğlu
- The Crimean Memorial Church is one of the few Anglican churches in Istanbul. Its typically English architecture, surrounded by a green garden, is an unusual contrast to the streets outside. The Christmas Eve service is at 7pm at St Helena’s Chapel on December 24, and the Christmas Day service is at the church at 10am the next day. Serdar-ı Ekrem Sokak No.52, Beyoğlu
- Orthodox Christmas services are hosted at Aya Yorgi Kilisesi (the Church of St George) on the grounds of the Fener Rum Patriarchate. For more details, visit the patriarchate’s website. Dr. Sadık Ahmet Caddesi No.44, Balat