Wish you a spendy Christmas .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 - It is Christmas time again, a time that leaves some of us merry but many others depressed. Icons of commercialism present us a part pagan and a part religious, but a mostly pastiche holiday. Happy St. Nicks smile down from street corners, carols ring throughout shopping centers, wreathes of holly bedeck many a Turkish door.

It must be Christmas. Well, sort of. There’s more than a little confusion about just what "Noel" means in a country where children wait for "Noel Baba" on New Year’s morning after urban parents serve them a dinner of "New Year’s turkey" with stuffing.

As Ali Bardakoğlu, head of Turkey’s Religious Affair Directorate put in recently: "It is a cultural celebration, not a religious one." But just which culture and how this got jumbled altogether is a lingering set of questions. This synthesis Ğ or some might argue synthentic Ğ approach to the holiday(s) is all the more complex as the original St. Nicholas was in fact born in today’s Turkey. Not only that, many of the cultural icons associated with the Dec. 25 festivity that Turks have grafted onto New Year’s are not in fact Christian. Indeed, they were borrowed from an assortment of pagan traditions.

No, today is not an official holiday in Turkey. But the retail industry certainly maximizes the use of Christmas motifs to combine it with the New Year’s holiday. With the introduction of Christmas carols, many stores in Istanbul play the seasonal tunes leading up to Christmas. "Silent Night," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and George Michael’s slightly less reverential "Last Christmas" are among those heard, to name just a few.

"We are playing a Christmas CD sent to us from our headquarters," says Body Shop store manager Gürol Kaptan in Beyoğlu. "We have been doing this for the past few years between Dec. 20-31."

Just like the carols and the trees, Santa Clauses have also become products of December. Next to the body shop, a Turkish Santa Clause, with his sloppy costume, is trying to sell Milli Piyango (National Lottery) tickets. Just like in the United States, Santa seems to be most popular in shopping malls here. "Malls are mostly asking for Santas to attract children at the weekends," said Elif Atuk from a Christmas organizing company.

When asked how they found their Santas, she said they hired actors and animators. "Mostly they sit in a big chair and have their pictures taken with the children. But we prefer young Santas, because they are more active and excited," she added.

Roots of Commercial Iconography

Christmas, of course, is meant to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Manger scenes, the star said to have appeared over Bethlehem on that holy day and other icons derive from that holy story. But The Encyclopedia of World Mythology connects many of the familiar icons of Christmas tradition to Roman times and even Norse paganism. According to writer John Curran, Romans celebrated the winter solstice by feasting, dancing and giving small presents and when the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity those pagan elements were also adapted.

Other traditions, such as the Christmas tree are rooted in Northern Europe. Writer Kudret Emiroğlu said today’s Christmas icons, such as the pine tree and the reindeer are in fact rooted in Northern paganism. "They originate from pagan traditions in Nordic countries, which date back long before the birth of Jesus. And when the United States was established, immigrants from the North brought their beliefs and icons, which have been commercialized and become the symbols of Christmas consumerism today," he said.

Celebrations in Turkey
Christmas’ commercial drive is indeed undeniable, yet one wonders, how did it become such a hit in Turkey? Emiroğlu said: "During the Ottoman times, Christmas used to be celebrated by the Greeks, Armenians and Italians and French who lived in Istanbul. But after the Turkish Republic was established, it is mostly the coming of New Years that is celebrated. The fact that Jan. 1 was made a national holiday might have triggered that as well."

When it comes to guessing how the celebrations spread to Anatolia, Emiroğlu said it was difficult to know, yet acknowledged that "television helped a great deal." Indeed, in the 1980’s it was Turkish Radio and Television, or TRT, that nailed many Turks into their couches on the night of the 31st. When TRT announced it would broadcast a belly dancing performance, millions of people tuned in to catch the show. "In the '80’s when villages started getting electricity, celebrations became more and more common too." Emiroğlu said.

Santa Remake
Although the Christmas trees and songs are imported, Santa Claus (or St. Nicholas) is in fact not. It is perhaps little known that Santa Claus actually originated from Demre, a southern town in the Mediterranean region of Turkey. According to legend, a bishop called Nicholas lived in the area in the 4th century and was canonized for helping people in need.

Yet Demre is not just famous for being home to St. Nicholas, it also garnered attention when it had his statue removed from the town square. In 2005, the town city council voted to replace the statue of the original St. Nicholas with the statue of Santa Claus, essentially an invention from the 1930s of Coca-Cola, with his bright red costume and white beard. The Mayor of the town Süleyman Topçu supported the decision by claiming that the Coca-Cola-designed Santa was the one everybody recognized. It was only last week, that after three years, the commercial image of Santa was again replaced with the original.

Commercialism seems to erase the past while redefining the present. Designed by Haddon Sundblom, Coca-Cola’s 1931 Santa advertisement is now what defines Christmas for many people. Or in Turkey, where it defines New Year’s, which has become "Noel."