January 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
When December rolled around, my roommate Alex got into the Christmas spirit. She cut out paper snowflakes, rolled out the sugar cookie dough, and cued up her favorite holiday romcoms. The familiar seasonal markers instantly made the increasingly cold and dark month more comfortable. I thought our apartment would be a cozy holiday hideaway in a country without the American/European Christmas overload.
But Turkey proved me wrong once again. The Turks have figured out a perfect solution to America’s never-ending “Season’s Greetings vs Merry Christmas” debate: hijack the entire Western imagery of Christmas and transpose it to New Year’s. There are fake evergreen trees, fake snow, tinsel, ornaments, lights, tacky mall winter scenes. Even Santa makes an appearance, though he does his breaking and entering routine on December 31st , sans reindeer(St. Nicholas was of Turkish origin, after all). The transposition of imagery is so complete that names are even conflated. I’ve heard Turks use both Christmas/Noel and New Year’s/Yilbasi to refer to the same day.
So with our apartment trimmings, Tekirdag city center palm tree lights, and over-the-top Taksim decorations, I wasn’t lacking at all in the holiday revelry. In fact, I felt oddly freer to enjoy all the Christmas kitsch here than I ever have in America. Despite the increasing acceptance of secular ‘holiday season’ imagery in private and public life, I always felt uncomfortable. Trees, lights? They’re beautiful and I can appreciate them from a distance, but to have one would be to give in, to lose a bit of my Jewish identity. Christmas is the litmus test of assimilation. I’d become one of them, the Jewish or Hindu families I knew whose Christmas trees (see, it’s right there in the name!) always confused me. It’s just not for me. Wasn’t Chanukah enough? But Turkey’s managed the impossible; an entire country took the Christ out of Christmas and made it a winter/year’s end celebration for everyone. And I kinda liked it.
I spoke about this briefly with the head of the Sephardic Research Center. She told me she did decorate her house and she did give her daughter presents for New Year’s—but certainly not for Chanukah. Purim is gift time, and to adopt the gift-giving tradition of Christmas origin so common in American just wasn’t her or the holiday’s style. Chanukah in Turkey is celebrated without the big build-up: chanukiyahs but no gifts; family but no latkes or soufganiyot (as far as I saw). Alex and I celebrated with a tea light menorah, but the amount of oil I consume every day rendered latke preparation unnecessary.
I did do a Christmas lesson, though! If I had written a lesson plan for the day (lazy end-of-the-year teacher!), the objective would have been: “Students will be able to recognize that Christmas and New Year’s are two separate holidays on two separate days.” Most got the picture and all were excited when I told them my Christmas gift to them was that I’d be on vacation the following week. To cries of, “See you next year!” (corniness translates in all languages), I left to meet my dad in Istanbul.
Yes, my dad came to visit for Christmastime! We celebrated Christmas Eve/Shabbat with some family friends’ cousins’ cousins in Tarabia, a neighborhood in the far north of Istanbul. With a view of the Bosphorus meeting the Black Sea, we bonded through multilingual conversations: English, Turkish, Spanish, Ladino, French. Family dinners are the best time for me to practice and observe Ladino in context; it was fascinating that the two grandmothers of the family, though fluent in Turkish, spoke almost exclusively in Ladino to each other throughout the meal. It was just easier, they said. It reminded me briefly of Gibraltar, where family conversation passed from English to Spanish effortlessly. Obviously my presence changed the normal family dynamic: I doubt English would have played much a role in the meal had I not attended. Fly-on-the-wall ethnographer I am not, but eager eater I am.
We feasted on homemade bulgar and vegetable salads and spinach and potato borek, with almost half a chicken each. After a sweet finish with baklava and sutlac, Rifat, an older family member, serenaded us in Spanish and Ladino while playing a mean guitar. It was beautiful, emotional and moving, made even more beautiful by the fact that he had had brain surgery not 3 days before. With the strong love and camaraderie of the family, the talking and singing lasted until at least 11:30, when my dad and I had to run to catch the last subway of the night.
Christmas Day was another day of Istanbul sightseeing (the usual tourist route: Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya), we were too tired to make the trek from Sultanahmet to Taksim for an original version American movie, (uninspiring choices didn’t help, either: “The Tourist” vs “Little Fockers”). But we had a lovely traditional December 25th Chinese dinner—spicy tofu, chicken, veggie fried rice.
The rest of the week was a wonderful father-daughter reunion: lunch and shopping in Kadikoy, pictures at the top of Galata Tower, a stop by the Jewish Museum, another gut-busting late-night dinner with the Levins.
My father left just before New Year’s/Turkish Christmas. I hung around Istanbul another few days visiting museums and friends and rang in 2011 with some expat friends at a house party.
2010 was one of the best and one of the most challenging years of my life. Though I’m sad to see most of it go, I’m excited about the rest of the year. I feel more confident in my living in Turkey and while the next semester won’t be easy, inshallah it won’t be nearly as difficult as the fall.
My semester is over! I’ve got an early flight to Izmir tomorrow morning and I’m excited about getting to know a new city. Much more to come…for now, more pictures!