Savouring a Turkish Christmas in 2024
Planning a Christmas visit to Turkey? While it's a Muslim country, did you know Turkey is Santa Claus's birthplace? Although Christmas isn't celebrated traditionally, Turkey is a popular destination during this festive time, offering unique New Year traditions similar to Western Christmas celebrations.
Limited Celebrations and New Year's Eve Highlights
When spending the Christmas season in Turkey, it's important to understand that the festivities are not as widespread as in many Western countries. The absence of a strong Christmas culture means that public enthusiasm and interest are relatively low. Unlike in some cultures, gift-giving is not a common practice during this time, although some families may exchange gifts on New Year's Eve.
On the upside, New Year's Eve brings opportunities for a lively experience, with special events hosted by restaurants, hotels, meyhanes, and bars. This provides a chance for those seeking a festive atmosphere to enjoy the holiday season.
In major cities, Christmas markets offer a glimpse into the holiday spirit, featuring festive dishes, Christmas-themed souvenirs, and local products. If you plan to explore these markets, it's advisable to dress warmly, as the weather in Turkey during Christmas can be cold.
A Unique Blend of New Year Festivities
With its predominantly Muslim population, Turkey focuses more on New Year rather than Christmas, so December festivals have a celebratory versus religious significance.
- Despite minimal Christmas itself, a festive atmosphere still surrounds New Years with holiday sales, decorations, and even Christmas markets featuring local goods.
- Though centering New Year, Western Christmas culture has visibly influenced modern Turkey through holiday dishes, TV programs, decorated trees, and Santa Claus-themed merchandise.
- Ultimately, Turkey delivers a unique festive fusion - New Year serves as the highlight but Western-style Christmas elements like markets, meals, and Santa statues still contribute cheerful seasonal charm.
- Visitors during December can expect a celebratory atmosphere with shopping deals and festive ornaments, even if not a traditional Christmas per se - an intriguing East-meets-West holiday blend.
The Historical Roots of Christmas in Turkey
Though not widely celebrated in modern Turkey, many Christmas icons like Santa Claus actually have Turkish origins tracing back to real figures and legends.
- Santa derives from Saint Nicholas, an early Christian bishop born and buried in Antalya, Turkey, known then for generosity versus present-day commercial themes.
- Religious texts depict Saint Nicholas saving girls from prostitution by anonymously providing dowry gold coins, among other miraculous feats like calming storms and killing demon trees.
- Despite his Santa Claus association today, Saint Nicholas goes largely unrecognised in his Turkish homeland, though his presence emerges through some Christmas displays.
- Ultimately, while contemporary Turkish Christmas appears limited, seminal pillars like Saint Nicholas originated there, echoing still today for travellers paying attention to the historical hints.
Santa Claus in Turkish Culture
Beyond the query of whether Turkey celebrates Christmas, another common question arises: Do Turkish people believe in Santa Claus?
Although the original Santa Claus has roots within the borders of Turkey, he doesn't hold a significant place in the country's cultural practices. Over nearly a millennium, Muslim Turks have been the predominant inhabitants of Turkey, and Santa Claus is not revered within this cultural context.
Nevertheless, traces of Santa's influence can be observed in Turkish New Year customs. Instead of the typical Christmas-themed decorations, shops in Turkey often feature New Year-related ornaments and décor, frequently depicting Santa Claus. It's not uncommon to find statues and figurines of Santa Claus displayed in Muslim-populated areas, malls, and shops.
Moreover, certain municipalities may organise New Year events where individuals dress up as Santa Claus, contributing to the festive atmosphere. In essence, while Turks may not hold beliefs in Santa Claus, he still plays a notable role in the country's New Year celebrations.
Common Phrases used in Wishing Merry Christmas in Turkish
When expressing holiday greetings in Turkish during the Christmas season, you have several options to convey good wishes. Among the most commonly used phrases are:
- Mutlu Noeller!
Translated directly as "Merry Christmas," this phrase is commonly employed in films or literary works. While it may not be as widely used in everyday conversation, Christian Turks often use this expression to wish each other a joyous Christmas.
- Yeni yılınız kutlu olsun!
This more secular and popular greeting translates to "Happy New Year" in Turkish. Frequently employed on New Year's Eve, it serves as a way to wish neighbours and relatives good luck in the upcoming year.
- Mutlu yıllar!
This versatile expression carries dual meanings of "Happy New Year" and "Happy birthday." Though not as prevalent as the previous phrases, it is often used in text messages to convey good wishes. For an extended wish, you can combine both expressions, saying "Yeni yılınız kutlu olsun, mutlu yıllar!" to emphasise your positive sentiments.
New Year Customs in Turkey
Given that Christmas isn't a nationally or traditionally celebrated holiday in Turkey, discussing authentic Christmas traditions is challenging. However, there are several New Year-related customs in Turkey, some of which bear a resemblance to Western Christmas traditions.
Here are some notable practices:
- Festive Decorations
Homes and stores often adorn their windows with Christmas ornaments, contributing to a festive atmosphere reminiscent of Christmas traditions.
- Roast Turkey on New Year's Eve
A culinary tradition aligning with Western Christmas customs involves the consumption of roast turkey on New Year's Eve. This shared culinary practice adds a touch of familiarity during the holiday season.
- Visits and Treats
Neighbours and relatives frequently exchange visits during the holiday season. It is customary to serve guests traditional Turkish treats such as baklava, Turkish delight, and chocolate, fostering a sense of hospitality and celebration.
- Red Underwear for Good Luck
A unique superstition involves wearing red underwear on New Year's Eve, believed to bring good luck in the upcoming year. This quirky tradition adds a touch of colour and symbolism to the festive celebrations.
- Christmas Markets - "Noel Pazarı" or "Yılbaşı Pazarı"
Turkey hosts Christmas markets, known as "Noel Pazarı" or "Yılbaşı Pazarı," where locals and visitors can explore and purchase local products and souvenirs. These markets, often located in malls or public squares, offer a festive shopping experience.
- Counting Down to the New Year
As the clock approaches midnight, a shared tradition involves counting down the last ten seconds to the new year. This communal countdown is a moment of anticipation and celebration.
Finding Christian Church Services in Turkey for Christmas
For those seeking Christian church services during Christmas in Turkey, several churches in Istanbul provide Christmas masses. Some notable churches where you can attend a Christmas service include:
- Church of St. Anthony of Padua – Catholic
This church, located in the Beyoglu district, offers services in English, making it accessible to English-speaking visitors during the Christmas season.
- Crimean Church – The Church of England
Providing services in English, the Crimean Church is another option for those looking to attend an English-language Christmas service in Istanbul.
- British Consulate Chapel of Saint Helena – The Church of England
This chapel, affiliated with the British Consulate, conducts services in English, providing a familiar setting for English-speaking attendees during the Christmas period.
- Venerable Patriarchal Church of Saint George – Orthodox
For those interested in Orthodox Christmas services, the Venerable Patriarchal Church of Saint George is a notable option.
- German Protestant Church – German Lutheran
Catering to the German-speaking community, the German Protestant Church in Istanbul offers Christmas services for those seeking a Lutheran perspective on the holiday.
- Protestant Church of Beşiktaş – Protestant
The Protestant Church of Beşiktaş is another option for individuals looking for Protestant Christmas services in Istanbul.
Where to Experience the Christmas Season in Turkey
If you're planning a Christmas vacation in Turkey, it's essential to choose the right destination to immerse yourself in the festive spirit. Here are some recommended Turkish cities and their associated attractions for a memorable Christmas experience:
Explore Vadistanbul Shopping Mall, Centro Comercial Cevahir, Akasya Mall, Kanyon Shopping Mall, and the iconic Grand Bazaar. Indulge in festive meals at Nicole, Panoramic Restaurant, Hamdi Restaurant – Pera, Shangri La, Swissotel The Bosphorus, and Hilton Istanbul Bomonti Hotel & Conference Center. Visit scenic spots like Pierre Loti Café, Gülhane Parkı, Galata, and Balat Parkı for a unique Christmas experience.
Explore MaviBahçe AVM, Hilltown AVM, Forum Bornova, and İstinye Park İzmir. Savor Christmas meals at Deniz Restaurant, La Cigale Alsancak, Buga Mavişehir, Lidaki Balık Restaurant, and Şirince Artemis Restaurant. Immerse yourself in the local atmosphere of Alsancak, Şirince, Efes, and Bostanlı.
Explore St Nicholas Church & Museum. Discover Land of Legends and TerraCity Mall. Enjoy festive dining at Taşkapı Konyaaltı Meyhanesi, Susesi Luxury Resort, Asteria Kremlin Palace, Selectum Luxury Resort, and Food In Box Antalya.
Does Turkey celebrate Christmas?
Turkey does not officially celebrate Christmas since the majority of the population is Muslim. However, there are still Christmas events and festivities taking place in Istanbul, mainly for the benefit of tourists.
Are there any Christmas decorations in Turkey?
Although Christmas is not celebrated nationwide, you can still find Christmas decorations in places like Istanbul, particularly along Istiklal Street and in shopping malls. These decorations are put up to cater to the large number of tourists visiting Turkey, especially from countries where Christianity is the dominant religion.
Are there any Christmas markets in Turkey?
While Christmas is not a widely celebrated event, there is a Christmas Market held outside the Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul. This market, happening from the 8th to 25th of December, offers various stalls, live music, fairground rides, and even an ice rink for visitors to enjoy.
What can I expect on Christmas Day in Turkey?
On Christmas Day, Turkey operates normally as it does on any other day. While you may see some decorations, there are no major parades or festivities happening nationwide. However, you may find ceremonies and events at the Christian churches, particularly in Istanbul.