Celebrating Christmas in Istanbul

Jen Welter-Çaylı
23 January, 2015

Christmas in Istanbul is rather surreal. Turkey is 98% Muslim so Christmas itself is not really celebrated. I was telling a friend of mine that I was writing an article on Christmas and she replied, “In Istanbul? It’s called New Years.”

christmas istanbul beyoglu

Photo: Ayxan Tanrıverdizade

Which is for the most part correct. If you came to the city during the month of December you would be forgiven for thinking that all the displays and lights (of which there are many and some quite beautifully done) are for Christmas. However you would be wrong. December is really just one giant lead up to New Years. While the shopping malls do play Christmas music and there are ornaments and trees for sale. There really isn’t much of a Christmas vibe. In fact, on the 25th life carries on as normal here. All the tourist locations are open, the museums, banks and post office have normal hours; everything is business as usual.

As part of the extreme minority we in the expat community do our little part to keep the Christmas flame alive. There are plenty of cocktail parties to attend and secret santa exchanges. Many opportunities to wear that hideous Christmas sweater. There are a handful of handcrafts bazaars to purchase gifts. One of my favorite bazaars is hosted by the International Women of Istanbul. Mainly I just go for the variety of international food stalls on offer! But there are a lot of great crafts as well. One of the upsides of living in Istanbul is the lack of soul crushing consumerism experienced in the U.S. There is no Black Friday, thank goodness. Because of that Christmas here feels a lot less stressful.

So while the lead up to Christmas has all the parties and lights and gift exchanges, Christmas day itself for me was kind of sad. Many people take that time to fly to their home countries to be with family. So the actual holiday can feel a bit empty. There is no It’s a Wonderful Life or the modern day classic, A Christmas Story playing on the television. In my family one of our traditions is to listen to Barbra Streisand’s Christmas album (virtually non-stop for a month if we are being honest). So this year my two sisters, my mom and I made a coordinated effort via text message to listen to the album at the same time, all of us states and miles apart. It was nice.

For any expat who may have been lonely, homesick or hungry, most of the upmarket hotels host a Christmas feast. And for those looking to save their souls the various Christian churches hold mass. Saint Anthony of Padua Church, which has one of the largest congregations in Istanbul annually holds an open mass and all are welcome to worship. It’s located on Istiklal street in the famed Taksim district best known for shopping and nightlife.  

All in all there are definite pros and cons to celebrating Christmas in Turkey. One of the things that I think I missed the most are the acts of kindness and charity that encompass the U.S. Christmas season. Perhaps it made the small things that much more important here. For example I was really touched when a few Turk’s who don’t even speak much English went out of their way to wish me a Merry Christmas. Just a little dose of holiday kindness and cheer can go a long way in a foreign land.

Christmas Xmas Holiday Season
Jen Welter-Çaylı

An American expat who has been living in Istanbul for the last 4 years. Interested in travel, exploring other cultures and eating great food along the way.

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