In late October my gym played a jazzed up version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’, which is early even by Western standards where Christmas revs its engine earlier and earlier each year. It turned out the Turkish trainers weren’t feeling prematurely festive, they just wanted a break from cheesy techno. So it was only me that was sent into unexpected raptures of snow covered chimney pots, chestnuts roasting on an open fire and rosy cheeked carollers.
No surprise that they didn’t know as Turks generally mix Christmas and New Year into one big party, albeit with tinsel and Santa hats. The 24th and 25th themselves largely go un-jingled. I would get my Christmas fix at Starbucks, nose pressed up against the window like the Little Match Girl, pretending that Christmas music and cinnamon flavored drinks could make up for the big day.
Of course, I’m not suggesting a Muslim country should celebrate my holiday and actually there are some advantages to being a Celebrator in a land of Non-Celebrants. For all the humbuggers who bemoan the over-saturation and commercialisation of Christmas, here there is space to DIY your Noel. You can enjoy it much more if you’re not drowning in eggnog and Christmas cards from October onwards. Think of it like an open buffet of the elements that mean Christmas to you – a Turkey dinner, family, presents, holly or spray snow – pick the ones you want and drop the more troublesome. If your relatives all live in another country, there’s no need to argue about whose mother to go to for Christmas Day and no big family disputes will come to a head over one too many brandies.
In fact, for displaced persons i.e. expats, celebrating in Turkey is better than spending Advent away from home in a Christian country. Christmas in the park in Sydney with two backpackers from Stockholm you met yesterday, all the shops shut and everyone else opening presents with their families is much more depressing.
Working towards giving ex-pats a place to make merry cheer, Shellie Corman, owner of Kahvedan, often imported pecan nuts and Santa napkins on her trip home in readiness. “One year, I had every manav in Cihangir looking for cranberries,” she says. “They found some at the last minute but they weren’t right and we had to make do with canned cranberry sauce and the dried fruit which was too sweet.”
Getting the taste of Christmas right is crucial to unlocking the psychological and emotional essence of home, all distilled down into one clove and tangerine whiff, a tinselly sparkle and jingle of bells. I tired to make mincemeat for mince pies one year. The dried fruit part was easy, but the suet even with the dictionary’s helpful translation “içyağı” proved elusive. Butchers didn’t have it and everyone assured me their mum cooked with it sometimes and it was repulsive. Undeterred by the reindeer’s litter-tray smell of the solid fat my Turkish potential mother-in-law gave me, I just figured the spices would cover it all with the magic only Christmas can bestow. The result stank out the flat for the rest of the day and was completely inedible.
*excerpts from my Time Out piece titled Christanbul