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Turkey has own Santa movie

The first St. Nicholas was Turkish and now the predominantly Muslim country has a modern Santa film.

(Photo by Reuters; Illustration by GlobalPost)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Everyone knows about the big white beard, the red suit and the reindeer. They write to Mr. Claus at the North Pole, and leave cookies out for him before going to bed on Christmas Eve.

What most people don’t know is that the legend of Father Christmas comes from what is now Turkey, a country that is 99 percent Muslim.

Santa is now a global phenomenon, but his story has humble roots: a 4th century archbishop named Nicholas, who lived in a small farming community on Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast.

In the fourth century, Nicholas was the archbishop of Myra, the Byzantine name for Demre. Legend has it that Nicholas once saved a poor man from selling his three young daughters into slavery by secretly placing bags of gold in the man's house at night.

Fast forward to today, and a quick stroll along Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s commercial artery, makes it clear that Turks have maintained their own peculiar relationship with this non-Islamic holiday — albeit one with less legend and more commerce.

The atmosphere on Istiklal is festive. Pedestrians stroll past shops filled with giant snowflakes, evergreen trees and twinkling lights. A man in a rumpled Santa suit sells lottery tickets to those passing along the rails of an old red trolley. Less than a mile away, at Istanbul's enormous Cevahir Shopping Mall, a four-story high Christmas tree looms over mob of shoppers.

If you don’t look too closely, it’s easy enough to imagine oneself on New York’s 5th Avenue or the Prague Christmas Market. But as the adhan — or Islamic call to prayer — rings out, one is reminded that no, this is Turkey. While there may be plenty of jingles, the church bells are few and far between.

But if most Turks don't celebrate Christmas, why does the Noel spirit seem to be in the air?

“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 symbols to New Years,” said professor Ayse Oncu, of Istanbul’s Sabanci University.

The adoption of secular Christmas symbols by urban Turks is a relatively new phenomenon — one that parallels the rise of a consumer culture here in Turkey. Beginning in the 1980s, the Turkish state gradually opened up to the outside world by relaxing its tight control over media and the economy. Since this opening up, Turkish society has adopted several foreign holiday traditions including Valentine's Day, which Turks call Sweetheart's Day.