The other day, I was thinking about spending Christmas in Turkey. I realized that while I might not find the traditional Christmas there, what I would encounter is a unique mix of traditions and celebrations that make the holiday season in Turkey truly one-of-a-kind.
Even though only a small percentage of the Turkish population is Christian, the festive spirit is vibrant, particularly in areas with many expats or tourists. Christmas in Turkey leans more towards the commercial side, with decorations and Santa Claus being a common sight in shopping malls and stores.
But here is the interesting part: for most Turks, the main winter celebration isn’t Christmas but New Year’s Eve. They celebrate it with so much enthusiasm and excitement.
Do Turkish People Celebrate Christmas?
Christmas in Turkey is a blend of Western influences and local traditions. Although the majority of the population in Turkey is Muslim, the spirit of the holiday season is not entirely absent.
The Influence of Western Traditions
Despite being a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey has not remained untouched by the charm of Western traditions. The streets of towns and cities in Turkey light up with festive decorations, and you might even spot the occasional Santa Claus. However, these celebrations align more with the commercial aspects of Christmas and the New Year rather than the religious holiday itself.
The influence of Western traditions has led to the adoption of Christmas symbols and customs, but these are typically associated with New Year’s Eve celebrations rather than Christmas itself.
Christmas Celebrations Among the Christian Minority
Even though most Turkish folks don’t celebrate Christmas, I learned that the Christian minority in Turkey, which accounts for about 0.5% of the population, observe the holiday, but they do so in their own unique ways. For these communities, Christmas is a time for church services and religious observance. For some Persian-speaking people in Turkey, celebrating Christmas expresses freedom as they can celebrate openly without fear.
When is Christmas in Turkey?
The date of December 25th doesn’t hold the same significance as in many Western countries.
December 25th is not a public holiday and is treated as a normal day. Only a small fraction of the population are Christians who observe Christmas. Many Christian migrants or refugees from countries like Syria and Iran attend Christmas services at their churches.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve, known as ‘Yılbaşı gecesi,’ is one of the biggest holidays in Turkey. It’s a time when families gather for a meal and celebrate the coming of the new year. The tradition of decorating New Year trees is becoming more popular, and it’s not uncommon to see symbols typically associated with Christmas, like Santa Claus, used in these celebrations.
Christmas Vacation in Turkey
If you consider a Christmas vacation in Europe, I can tell you that Turkey is bound to enchant you with its unique mix of Eastern and Western influences. The country is rich in history and has a diverse culture and breathtaking architecture.
Istanbul is a city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. The city’s historic sites, like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, are less crowded, allowing you to explore them at your own pace.
You can stroll along the snow-dusted streets of the old city, warming up with a cup of traditional Turkish tea or coffee in one of the many cozy cafes.
Don’t miss the chance to visit the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, for some holiday shopping.
Cappadocia is known for its unique rock formations. The fairy chimneys transform the city into a winter wonderland with a dusting of snow. The landscape takes on a magical quality, with the snow highlighting the contours of the rock formations.
In CappYou have the opportunity to discover the area’s age-old cave homes and churches, embark on a hot air balloon journey for a bird’s eye view of the snow-draped scenery, or just relish the peacefulness of the winter season.
And for a truly unique experience, you can stay in a cave hotel with a roaring fire to keep you warm.
Turkish Christmas Decorations
Trees and Santa Claus
The Christmas tree is more commonly referred to as the New Year’s tree or “Yılbaşı Ağacı.” This is because the majority of Turks celebrate New Year’s Eve with much more fervor than Christmas.
During this time, homes, shops, and streets are adorned with festive decorations, including trees, statues of Santa Claus, and fairy lights.
Santa Claus, known as “Noel Baba” in Turkish, is a popular figure often depicted in decorations and festive displays. The gift-giving tradition also exists, but it’s more associated with New Year’s Eve than Christmas.
Istanbul’s Sparking Streets
Istanbul truly comes alive during the festive season. Many big roads, especially the well-known Istiklal Avenue, are adorned with fancy holiday lights hung between buildings, enchanting the surroundings.
Shopping malls and boutiques also join in the festivities, with their facades beautifully decorated with Christmas ornaments and lights. Istanbul becomes even more charming at night when the street lights are sparkling.
If you are in Istanbul during this time, a stroll through the illuminated streets is a must!
Christmas Food in Turkey
When celebrating the holiday season in Turkey, the food is a highlight you can’t miss. New Year’s Eve in Turkey is the main celebration in Turkey and is traditionally celebrated at home with family. The dinner table is adorned with a variety.
Here are some of the traditional Turkish delicacies that are commonly served during the New Year:
Kestane or Chestnuts are available in most areas of Istanbul. The best Turkish chestnuts are roasted over a small fire in a vendor’s cart. Roasted chestnuts smell amazing! You can eat them straight from the shell, with pastries, or savory dishes.
Pilaf with Chicken and Nuts
This is a rich and hearty dish that combines tender chicken with various nuts, all mixed into a flavorful pilaf.
If you have a sweet tooth like me, you will love the various pastries served on every single corner of the city.
Dried Fruit Roll-Ups
These are served to guests before and after dinner, offering a sweet and tangy treat to cleanse the palate.
New Year’s Eve in Turkey
The countdown to the New Year is a big deal. I’ve noticed that many make it a point to purchase a New Year’s lottery ticket, holding onto the hope of kicking off the year with a hefty sum of money. When the clock hits midnight, people congratulate each other, toast the New Year, and swap little presents.
A quirky tradition involves wearing red clothes and underwear to boost romance for the coming year. Another popular custom is smashing a pomegranate, symbolizing prosperity and abundance.
Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Istanbul
Taksim Square is the main gathering place. the square and side streets, like Istiklal Caddesi, are packed with thousands of locals.
On this night, Turkish families typically come together for a special meal, relishing traditional foods.
The spectacular fireworks at the Bosphorus and the vibrant parties across all districts make the city an unforgettable New Year’s Eve experience.
Gift exchanges are an integral part of the holiday season in Turkey. Gift-giving is a symbol of honor, love, and respect for each other. Gifts are frequently exchanged on every occasion, especially during the New Year celebrations.
If a local Turkish family invites you for dinner, you must bring a gift. The most common gifts are pastries or items for the home. Other popular gifts include decorative items such as vases, goblets, or ornaments. The pomegranate fruit or symbolic objects have always represented prosperity in Turkey and are also great gifts to bring. Other popular gifts include Turkish delights (lokum), baklava, and other sweets.
What is “Merry Christmas” in Turkish
“Merry Christmas” in Turkish is “Mutlu Noeller.” The phrase literally translates to “Happy Christmases,” reflecting the joy and happiness of the holiday season. So, if you find yourself in Turkey during Christmas, don’t forget to wish the locals a “Mutlu Noeller”!
Interesting Facts About Christmas in Turkey
The Story of Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas
Did you know that the tale of Santa Claus actually originates from Turkey? The real Santa Claus, who we know as Saint Nicholas, was born around 280 A.D. in Patara, close to Myra in what is now Turkey. Renowned for his kindness and devoutness, Nicholas became the central figure of many legends. Some believe he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. His story traveled far and wide, eventually evolving into the Santa Claus we know today.
Unique Turkish NYE Traditions
As the New Year draws near, I’ve noticed that Turkey illuminates unique traditions. One of the most intriguing customs I’ve come across is the act of smashing a pomegranate in front of one’s door for good luck.
Another tradition that caught my attention was sprinkling salt on the doorstep, a symbol of purification and a means to ward off evil spirits.
But not only the pomegranate is red on NYE in Turkey. Some women wear red underwear as red is the color of luck.
All these and more customs bring a unique touch to the holiday season in Turkey, making it an intriguing time for a visit.