It is strange to realize that today is an ordinary Sunday in Turkey, be it the last one of 2010, while in the rest of Europe it is the second day of Christmas, a special day for everybody. It is one of those differences that you hardly think about until, like me, you are travelling between both worlds. Living and working in Turkey but with strong roots and family ties in the Netherlands.
It was funny to hear my Turkish barber in Taksim wish me a Merry Christmas last week when I went there for a final hair cut. I am sure he wanted to be kind to me, but for him Christmas is an event taking place in another part of the world that he only knows about through famous songs from classic American movies and the images of big decorated Christmas trees. As most Turks, he does not have, how could he, the special Christmas feeling that most Europeans and -- for that matter -- most Americans and Canadians have.
When I grew up in the ‘60s, Christmas was still very much related to religion. Dec. 25 was the actual birthday of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity. As a family, we went to church on Christmas Eve and sang the hymns that celebrate that crucial event in the history of the religion that my parents felt strongly attached to. Even after 45 years, I can still remember most of those powerful songs about a small child that was born to save me and all the other Christians. It gave you a good feeling to belong to that community of churchgoers because the mass was combined with the towering presence, all around, of all kind of symbols that came with the event: trees full of lights, cribs with the small Jesus and his parents, green branches, bells and some small presents. It was only later that I understood that on Dec. 25 and 26 Christians have incorporated in their celebrations many customs and practices that have nothing to do with their religion. Trees, evergreen boughs, lights to mark the start of longer days in the midst of winter, they were all part of pagan traditions, predating Christianity, that were cleverly taken on board to create an overwhelming feeling of new life being created in the middle of darkness and you being part of that unfolding story of salvation.
When I write these words, melancholy and nostalgia dominate. For me personally, this is history, still able to create beautiful memories. But it is over. I do not go to church anymore and, on a more fundamental level, I do not believe any longer that religion, be it Christianity or another faith, has convincing answers to the questions that are important to me nowadays.
But the Christmas feeling never disappeared. Being in the Netherlands now, I still enjoy the lights, the trees and the modern versions of the old religious songs. But what is more important these days is the getting together with family and friends, eating, talking and discussing the year that is almost over and the one that is yet to come. Despite the commercialization of Christmas over the last 50 years and the fact that today for many Europeans having Christmas means consuming as much as possible, these precious moments of contemplation have survived and are important for many, whether they are believers or non-believers.
I guess the best comparison is with Ramadan Bayram in the Muslim world. A moment to sit and eat together with your loved ones, at best a moment of self reflection. Special for pious Muslims but recognized as a distinct moment by people who have no or only weak religious feelings. These are the kind of occasions that every civilization has created to underline community spirit and stimulate reflection. They have become rare in modern societies where individualization and growing skepticism about sharing common goals have undermined these traditions and have created the impression that one can do without.
Christmas in the Netherlands, Bayram in Turkey. I am happy to participate in both. To cherish the good memories and make new plans for the future.
*Published in Turkey’s TODAY ZAMAN on Dec. 20, 2010.