Christmas as a family affair .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:none; color:#000000;} .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink:hover { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline; color:#990000;} ISTANBUL - While evergreens and fir trees were sold along the streets of Galata, finding other kinds of decorative garnishes could be more difficult. Asparagus, red berries and mistletoe could be found in palace gardens while one of the imperial princes ensured that the foreign community had plenty of holly.

If you expect Santa Claus to come down your Istanbul chimney on Christmas Eve, think again. Firstly, he could not get down the type of chimneys on buildings here. Secondly, he would not be able to find you as a vast number of the city’s inhabitants are Muslim.

Christmas is a Christian event to celebrate the birth of Christ, only no one really knows the exact date. Information in the New Testament of the Bible is tied to the three wise men seeing a bright light in the sky, but if as recently suggested, the light was the convergence of three planets, another theory among many has arisen. The only thing experts seem to agree on is that Christ's birth was not on Dec. 25, or the year zero.

This matters to Christians, otherwise they could not celebrate the event. The common sense theory is the date of Dec. 25 was chosen by early Christians because it was on this day that a pagan holiday took place. By substituting Christ’s birth for the pagan holiday, Christians eradicated the prior holiday although it might have still co-opted some of the festivities.

Christmas has always been a Christian holiday, although each denomination celebrates in slightly different ways. For many centuries in Istanbul it was the Greek and Armenian Orthodox Churches that led the faithful. Church services, prayers and fasting were adhered to, as well as homilies and solemn reflections on the year just passed. A procession of the faithful would be led by priests and the Byzantine emperor and empress as well as other dignitaries in their resplendent clothes and jewels, to worship at the St. Sophia Church.

After the conquest of Constantinople, there was little left for the Greek and Armenian Orthodox believers to celebrate. Worship services were confined to a few churches and it seemed unlikely resplendent clothes and jewels would have been worn as that might have attracted unwanted attention. After this, a very rich culture connected with Christmas arose that emphasized relations among family and friends. This, however, was not because of any oppression on the part of the Turks; commercialism and globalization had not yet arrived.

For the Greek Orthodox, even as late as the 1960s, there would have been a normal midday mass on Christmas Day, but they celebrated New Year’s Day more. The Catholic Church would hold a midnight mass and that tradition still holds today.

On New Year’s Eve groups of young Greek children would go from house to house singing carols, accompanied only by the beat of a triangle. The carols might have been religious songs or Greek songs and they usually received some small change or cookies in appreciation.

If there was traditional food among the Greeks at this time, it would have been kourambiedes (cookies) or melomakarono (honey macarna), but no special meat, such as turkey. They may have served lamb. One custom was the baking of a rich bread which had a coin placed in it. The bread would be sliced into pieces and whoever received the piece containing the coin was supposed to have good luck for the rest of the year.

Houses would be decorated with home-made ornaments and small trees that would be sold all over the Beyoglu area. Any gifts exchanged would not have been big or expensive and would have been given on New Year’s Day, which also happened to be St. Basil’s Day.

As one person described him, St. Basil was the Greek Orthodox Santa Claus. He was supposed to visit children and give them presents. It was on St. Basil’s Day that the bread with the coin inside would be served, as a reminder of the charity attributed to Basil who had been born to a wealthy family, but had given all of his possessions away. In the West, a similar story is attached to St. Nicholas who became the Western "Santa Claus," while Basil became the Eastern one.

Armenian traditions were rather different, as the week before a religious holiday is supposed to be spent fasting. Fish could be eaten, but no other meat. Butter, milk and olive oil were also forbidden. Instead, cheeses, nuts, different types of fish appetizers and a main fish dinner would be served, which would be polished off with a sweet dessert, such as baklava or kurabiye.

New Year’s Eve is celebrated on Dec. 31 as it is in most of the world. That is the day gifts are traditionally exchanged. Christmas celebrations would start with a mass at church on Jan. 5, as unlike Western countries, Armenians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6. Another mass would be celebrated on Jan. 6 and then Jan. 7 would be devoted to those who had passed away.

Foreigners in Istanbul
In the 19th century the number of foreigners attracted to life in Istanbul increased and most of them were either working at various embassies or businesses in the Beyoğlu area. Christmas and New Year would be an exciting time because it was one of celebration and partying. As the number of men outnumbered women three to one, it fell to each hostess to make sure introductions were made. Every effort would be made to ensure no one spent the holiday alone.

While evergreens and fir trees were sold along the streets of Galata, finding other kinds of decorative garnishes could be more difficult. Asparagus, red berries and mistletoe could be found in palace gardens while one of the imperial princes ensured the foreign community had plenty of holly from his own garden, where he had the plant especially grown for his English friends.

In the words of Dorina Neave who was in Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century and whose father was attached to the British Embassy, "New Year’s Day is the great day of rejoicing, the occasion for exchanging gifts of every description, especially flowers and bonbonnieres. It was an exasperating day for tipping, as the bearer of every parcel expected ’baksheesh,’ and the servants were kept busy all day, with boatmen, coachmen, porters, postmen, shopkeepers and kavasses, in fact anyone who had ever been employed in the house, calling to bring some small offering, such as two oranges, a pot of jam, a box of sweets or a bunch of flowers, until the sideboards were laden with these gifts, for which, treble their value was paid in tips. It was the custom for even the poorest Greek and Armenian families to contrive to gather as many different kinds of fresh fruit as possible for their New Year’s dinner, which were purchased according to the ’baksheesh’ they received."

Neave said there were balls and cotillions, and men dressed up in top hats and frock coats to pay visits to their superiors. All of the embassies promoted a holiday season for their nationals to the extent that was possible. Some of these celebrations would be more elaborate if the ambassador and his deputy were married, otherwise, wives and daughters could not be invited to get-togethers. People would attend church, even though they might not go regularly during the year.

Creating today’s Christmas
Such festive occasions continued in Istanbul until the 1980s among the Greek, Armenian and foreign communities. Vitali Hakko changed that almost single-handedly. The owner of the Vakko Department Store on İstiklal Caddesi, was the first to have the windows of the store decorated in a Christmas theme. There were no special lights on that important shopping street and as a result of his efforts and those of others, the municipality put up special strings of street lights and as one would expect, ran into heavy criticism from conservative Muslims. More stores decorated their windows. Fir trees could be purchased in a number of shops and the area behind the Mısır Çarşısı began to specialize in Christmas ornaments for trees and strings of lights. Five-star hotels began to advertise Christmas dinners and New Year’s specials for those interested in getting away. Most recently, you could even buy a take-away turkey from some restaurants.

The shop-owners knew they had won when Muslims, especially the well-educated with spare cash, began to get into the spirit of Christmas. It was not just İstiklal Caddesi that was lit up. The shopping malls that had begun to spring up in numerous areas around the city entered into the festive season’s spirit as well. And so it has continued.