Although this holiday is not widely celebrated here, there are actually some interesting connections between Turkey and Christmas.
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.”