Sunday, January 6, 2013

Santa Claus, New Years and Commercialization in Turkey

This year was my first time spending Christmas away from my family.  In fact, I didn't celebrate Christmas at all.  While I missed the family time - seeing relatives and eating lots of food - I did not miss the gift exchange.  For the most part, I already gave my Christmas presents and I gave many presents here in Turkey, so I felt the joy of giving that is so much fun around Christmas.  What I didn't experience was the stress of shopping last minute, or of disappointed looks from presents that just weren't quite right. 

I expected that Christmas would not be celebrated here in Turkey.  At least not in the main stream society that is predominately Muslim.  However, it seems that Christmas is perhaps more of a capitalist conception that a religious one (or at least in its modern form of gift giving galore).  Since I arrived in Turkey I noticed Christmas decorations in several shops.  Commercials were full of red and green sparkling trees and lights with the message to give gifts, shop the sales and use your credit card!  When I asked about this I was told that these images are related to New Year's here in Turkey.  So it seems that the color and flamboyance of modern Christmas has infiltrated the closest secular holiday - the New Year celebration.

Christmas decorations for sale in a department store in Maraş
(Source: Turklish)

Christmas decorations sold in Istanbul

Even some of the Turkish television series picked up on the theme.  Back in the USA we watch Yalan Dünya, a comedy that contrasts a traditional Turkish family with a group of actors living in side by side apartments in Istanbul.  Most of the Turkish is over my head, but with H.'s lighting fast translations, I can get the general picture and some of the jokes.

This past week we were watching the New Year's episode and we were both a bit shocked.  It took the shopping theme to the max including all the drama related to gift exchange - the need to impress with the value of the gift, the wife mistaking a gift for her husband's mistress as her own, and the stress of shopping in the crowds.  

Santa Claus even made an appearance on the show.  Santa, as many of you may already know, is from Turkey!  Now, I'm not talking about the big-bellied, red and white clad, ho-ho-ho fellow.  I'm talking about the real Santa - St. Nicholas, who was born in the third century in the Greek village of Patara, which is now located on the southern coast of Turkey.  St. Nicholas sold what he owned to give to the poor and became well known for his generosity to those in need. 

I'm not sure how such a compassionate man who cared so much for the poor became the symbol of excess and gluttony at Christmas, but culture works in strange ways.  Perhaps it was that clever parent that told their children they would get gifts if they were good or coal if they were bad from good ol' St. Nick.  Just as parents use the "elf-on-the-shelf" technique these days.

One image of St. Nicholas that doesn't fit the modern depiction.

However it happened, now St. Nicholas, or Santa, is the symbol of the commercialization of Christmas - and now apparently for New Years in Turkey too!  In the episode we watched Santa was outside the stores encouraging people to come and buy gifts and spend money.  One of the down-to-earth characters in the series, who represents a man from the North of Turkey, walks up to this Santa and says - "what are you doing? Santa isn't like this, he's a brother from Turkey, he gave to the poor not the rich".  Soon the man shows up in a brown robe with a drum - the real "Santa".  They fight for attention in the street as the confused shoppers wonder by.

A screen shot from the Yulan Dunya series with dueling Santas - the one on the left is a depiction of the historical St. Nicholas, while the one on the right, I believe, needs no introduction
(Source: Turklish)

In another scene an older man in the traditional family scolds his son-in-law for buying inappropriate gifts for the neighbors.  He says - "In our culture we give to the poor on holidays - not buy underwear for our neighbors." 

Good point.  For most of the religious holidays in Islam, gifts of meat or grains are given to the needy, and to family and neighbors.  Useful gifts - like lamb and bulgur.  Of course, the children get their candy too. 

It seems with this New Year's gift giving tradition that someone is trying to change Turkey little by little to be more like America (or Western Europe).  Or perhaps it is just capitalism and globalization at work.  For you see, commercials are just distractions without the song and dance of the holiday and sales seem like much better deals when you are in a rush to buy something in time for a holiday.  The obligation to buy gifts for others in time for New Year's Eve will surely boost revenue at all the clothing and department stores.  So maybe all this commercialization of New Year's is good for the economy, but what about the cost to culture?

At least I can say that this tradition hasn't infiltrated into H.'s family.  We spent New Year's Eve eating delicious food, drinking glass after glass of tea, and singing Turkish folk songs until the moment the clock struck midnight and then we ate desert.

Maybe these gift giving traditions are more common in Istanbul or Western Turkey, or perhaps the TV series are trying to get some extra sponsors by pushing gift giving from certain stores and brands.  I guess only time will show if this Western tradition will truly stick.  I'm hoping that it doesn't.

Does anyone else has any experiences or thoughts that may help clarify this Christmas-New Year's cultural conundrum?


  1. Well, living in Istanbul, it seemed like Christmas/New Year's decorations were nearly everywhere in the city....probably not in more conservative neighborhoods. It does seem to be a holiday where people do gift exchanges just like we do in the US. Who knows what the future will hold for it? I also did not miss being back in the US surrounded by the crazy commercialism this holiday season!

    1. That's interesting - it seems like Istanbul has taken on the gift giving and Christmas theme perhaps more than other parts of Turkey. You can find Santas here in Maras, but Christmas decorations are not as common. I agree that it is nice to be away from the commercialism - it is like a breath of fresh air! It seems like you had a nice Christmas with friends and good food - a great combination!

  2. My husband is from Izmir but has been in Canada close to 30 years and said when he was growing up he really never did see any Christmas decorations at all in his time. I noticed his cousins a few years back came to visit us and stocked up on all sorts of Christmas decor and they live in Istanbul.
    I think it's kind of nice.....well Santa is really from Turkey :-)
    Just found you Blog and it's very interesting so now I'm going to be a Follower.

  3. Thanks for the comment Irene! Sorry for the late moderation it is difficult to get online these last few days in turkey. Welcome to my blog - I look forward to checking out yours as well when life is back to normal for me.


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