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.
In Istanbul's sprawling Eminonu district there are alleys full of shops selling tinsel, artificial Christmas trees and dozens of different models of Chinese-made dancing Santa Claus dolls.
“We are selling Christmas symbols here; it’s a big opportunity for business in a time of economic crisis,” said Tuna Alkan, a dentist by profession but seasonal helper in her husband’s landmark shop Urgancilik. “It’s funny though, because I am a Jew and they are Muslims and we are surrounded by Christmas.”
Now, with “Neseli Hayat,” Turkey has its very first Christmas movie. Prolific writer, director and comedian Yilmaz Erdogan has brought a new Christmas icon to the streets — one that is uniquely Turkish.
“Neseli Hayat” translates to “A Cheerful Life,” but another title could easily be “The Turkish Santa." Erdogan stars as Riza, a working-class man who has lost his job, his friends and his money to a disastrous pyramid scheme. Down and out, Riza is forced to take a job as Santa Claus in a toyshop in one of Istanbul’s new shopping malls. Dressed up in the obligatory red suit and white beard, Riza tries to get into character without any idea what this is all about.
In one of the films more memorable scenes, Riza and the other mall Santas are given a lesson on how to speak Santa’s lingo. Riza’s boss gives a hearty “HO HO HO,” followed by the other Santas with equal enthusiasm, if a thick accent. When Riza is called out to give his own attempt, however, the greeting is feeble, more gasp and wheeze than holiday cheer.
The film plays on the irony of Riza’s predicament, zooming in to highlight him giving the introductory two kisses to his mall friends — a giant mobile phone and hamburger — his plastic beard pressed up against a bright yellow French fry. His compulsory, and often awkward “ho ho ho's” are usually followed by a cheery "asalam alaikum," a common Arabic greeting meaning “peace be upon you.”
The film highlights not only how Muslim Turks have rediscovered the Western saint of secular Christmas — and his roots in Turkey — but also how they have adapted this icon to a Muslim culture. “Neseli Hayat” may not be “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but this cozy little Christmas tale is fully adapted to the Turkish ethos.
Move aside Santa; the Turks have found their own “Efendi Claus.”