A chronological survey of New Year’s celebrations in Turkey

In Turkey, the New Year and Christmas are often confused. But this is not a novel phenomenon.

Last week, the topic of the Friday sermons in Turkey was the New Year’s celebrations. The sermons characterized the celebrations as “cultural degradation.”

It has been this way for a long time. Mosques throughout Turkey and various religious platforms discuss New Year’s celebrations in the weeks prior to the new year.

This year, the website of the Directorate of Religious Affairs released an article called, “The Friday Sermon: Let’s Protect the Values that Make Us Who We Are,” which called attention to the “drawbacks” of New Year’s celebrations.

The article noted that, “moral values, customs, and traditional values have begun to decay, and cultural alienation is on the rise,” and that, “one of these cultural degradations is the New Year’s celebrations. These celebrations, the symbolic figures used as part of them, and the cutting of pine trees has no place in our history nor in our culture.”

The article, which also included warnings against alcoholic beverages and luck-based games, expressed, “Our great religion, Islam, has forbidden alcohol, the mother of all evils, and gambling, which impoverishes homes and causes murders. Lottery, toto, lotto and all games of chance, which are different types of gambling, are also haram and sinful in our religion.”

Undoubtedly, Christmas and the New Year are being confused in Turkey, with many assuming that Christmas is the New Year itself. In these circles, people assume that when Muslims "celebrate the New Year,” they lose their identities and affiliations by distancing themselves from their own beliefs and values and falling prey to the influences of foreign cultures.

It has been this way for many years. During the years of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration, New Year’s celebrations are near criminalized. Who are you to gather with your friends and family to have some fun, eat some dried nuts and fruits, and have a couple clementines! Sit on your lonesome for four days and eat those fruits, why don’t you! Forget about those “secular years” with the government sponsored channel showing belly dancers. You’re in the “new Turkey” now.

In Turkey, the New Year and Christmas are often confused. But this is not a new phenomenon, it has been like this for years.

The New Year, celebrated on the night that connects December 31 to January 1, and Christmas, one of the most important religious holidays of Christians and which celebrates the birth of Jesus, are fundamentally different from each other. In short, and as opposed to the public consensus, the Christians also spend December 21 celebrating the new year. There is no religious celebration.

Since the 2000s, at shopping malls specifically, there have been attacks on costumed characters wearing Santa Claus outfits and even on inflatable balloons. People would even hang up banners displaying Santa being punched.

In 2013, "gangs" opposing those who wanted to celebrate Christmas appeared. Their calls on social media even turned into action. They gathered at Hergele Square at the Faculty of Literature in Istanbul University and held a demonstration in Beyazit Square. A group of students protested by circumcising and then stabbing the inflatable Santa Claus. It was the most creative protest in those years!

The posters of the "muscular man with a taqiyah* throwing a punch at Santa Claus,” prepared by the youth wing of the Felicity Party were among the notable masterpieces in the "fight against Christmas.” The poster displayed the slogan “NO to New Year's and Christmas celebrations!”

The "Santa Claus brings with himself alcohol, marijuana and death” poster, which was unveiled at the protest in Beyazit, has occupied a permanent space in my memory even though years have passed. I remember it every year and smile.

Come 2014, the protests showed no signs of slowing down. Members of the Great Union Party (BBP) reacted to the New Year's celebrations in Bolu through a demonstration on the busiest street of the city which featured a symbolic janissary chasing down Santa Claus who was handing out gift packages to the citizens.

In the depiction, Father Christmas had already passed out his gifts to the citizens on the street, at which point the Sultan asked his grand vizier what Santa was doing out on the street. Upon hearing that Santa was handing out gifts, the Sultan became enraged and shouted at the vizier to “throw this thing out of town.”

When the Sultan ordered the Janissaries to take Santa Claus, the chase started on the street.

The posters organized by the BBP Youth Movement included the phrases "Muslims do not celebrate Christmas" and "Whoever imitates a tribe is one of them.” The youth, who started their activities to "raise the awareness of the Muslim community against the Christian New Year's celebrations,” decorated cities throughout Turkey with their posters.

After five to six years of torturing the symbolic Santas, "tolerant conservatives" began the search for a different method. Thus was born the notion of nationalizing and localizing what could not be eradicated.

In 2015, Assyriologist Muazzez İlmiye Cig said that Christmas had been celebrated as the "Rebirth-Pine Festival" by ancient Turks and that New Year's was a Turkish tradition.

The famous 98-year-old Assyriologist stated that the name of Christmas in the past was “Nargudan” and said, "According to the beliefs of the Turks before they converted to monotheistic religions, there was a ‘Pine Tree' on earth, which is considered the heart of the earth. The top of this tree extends to the palace of the god Ulgen who sits in the sky, and it was called the 'tree of life' etc.”

In 2018, Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University Faculty Member Dr. Yilmaz said, “The tradition of Ayaz Ata in Turkish culture is the root of the mythology of Santa Claus in Christianity or Ded Maroz in Russians; it is an ancient mythological tradition of ours.” He explained that the Russians first stole the Turkish ancestor, Atak Ayaz, and then the Europeans who saw this from the Russians invented their Santa Claus.

The bizarre statements of these two academics and the valuable information they conveyed were shared by many columnists.

*A taqiyah is a short, rounded skullcap worn by some Muslim men.

*A long-time analyst on regional issues, Alin Ozinian holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy and an MA in Turkish Studies. She is currently a PhD researcher at YSU's Faculty of Political Science. Ozinian has worked at the Permanent Mission of Armenia to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and has served as the Regional Coordinator of International Alert's Caucasus Development Network, based in London, and as a regional analyst for the Armenian Assembly of America, based in Washington DC. She served as press secretary for the Turkish-Armenian Business Council. In 2018, she received the Jampruk Research Award on migration issues, announced by the United Nations Association. Since 2021, Ozinian has been the executive director of the Arti Media.

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