Turks Adopt Christmas Symbols Turkey is a country that is 99 percent Muslim. Yet, visitors to Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, could easily be convinced that Turks are preparing to celebrate Christmas.
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Turks Adopt Christmas Symbols

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Turks Adopt Christmas Symbols

Turks Adopt Christmas Symbols

Turks Adopt Christmas Symbols

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Turkey is a country that is 99 percent Muslim. Yet, visitors to Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, could easily be convinced that Turks are preparing to celebrate Christmas.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Turkey is a country that is 99 percent Muslim. Yet, a visitor to Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, could be easily convinced that Turks are preparing to celebrate a very non-Muslim holiday this month - Christmas.

We have two reports this morning on nations that have found ways to deal with this seemingly foreign holiday incidentally using Chinese decorations among other things. And we begin with NPR's Ivan Watson.

IVAN WATSON: Less than a week before Christmas, Turks celebrated one of the biggest holidays on the Muslim calendar - the feast of the sacrifice or Kurban Bayram. It's the time when many Turks make donations to the poor and travel long distances to pay their respects to elderly relatives.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

WATSON: On the eve of Kurban Bayram, Istanbul's central Istiklal Street was jam-packed with people off early from work and from school.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

WATSON: The atmosphere was festive. Laughing pedestrians strolled past shops filled with tinsel, giant snowflakes, evergreen trees and twinkling lights.

Not far from the rails where an old red trolley clatters past, a man in a rumpled Santa suit sold lottery tickets to passersby.

Less than a mile away, at Istanbul's enormous Cevahir Shopping Mall, a four-story high Christmas tree loomed over mob of shoppers next to a life-sized Santa Claus mannequin.

Most Turks don't celebrate Christmas. So why then this Christmas seemed to be in the air?

Professor AYSE ONCU (Sociology, Sabanci University): Christmas and New Year are very close to one another. And Turks do celebrate New Year, so all the Christmas so-called season has migrated with its symbol, so New Year's.

WATSON: Ayse Oncu is a sociology professor at Istanbul's Sabanci University. She explains that the adoption of secular Christmas symbols by urban Turks is a relatively new phenomenon.

Prof. ONCU: The enormous explosion of cultural (unintelligible) parallel with consumer culture, I think, is mainly responsible.

WATSON: Starting in the 1980s, the Turkish state gradually opened up to the outside world by relaxing its tight control over media and the economy.

In less than a generation, Oncu says Turkish society adopted several foreign holiday traditions including St. Valentine's Day, which Turks call Sweetheart's Day.

(Soundbite of crowd)

WATSON: At one at Istanbul's sprawling outdoor Tahtakale Bazaar, there's an entire alley full of shops selling tinsel, artificial Christmas trees and dozens of different models of Chinese-made dancing Santa Claus dolls.

(Soundbite of Dancing Santa Claus Dolls)

WATSON: Forty-eight-year-old Uchgar Baran(ph) came here to buy decorations for her apartment for a New Year's Eve party.

Ms. UCHGAR BARAN: (Through translator) Well, I bought a variety of ornaments. And I want to buy a Santa, and we have a Christmas tree. We will decorate the tree after.

WATSON: Nizam Karabchak(ph), one of the shopkeepers selling Christmas ornaments here, says his top-selling product is this singing Santa doll.

(Soundbite of singing Santa Claus Doll)

SANTA CLAUS DOLL: Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas.

(Singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingleā€¦

WATSON: Do you guys have a Christmas tree at home?

Mr. NIZAM KARABCHAK (Shopkeeper): (Through translator) Yes, of course. We have a tree at home, and we decorate it. And - but the truth is, you know, we don't know what really Christmas is. I like it. I enjoy it. Just that, yeah, we don't know what the true meaning of it is.

(Soundbite of Singing Santa Claus Doll)

SANTA CLAUS DOLL: (Singing) Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.

WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

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