For the first time in three years, I'll be going home for Christmas. I can't tell you how great this feels. I've felt great about this since it first occurred to me when I was pregnant that not working meant I was free to go home for the holidays. And of course, there's nowhere else to spend LE's first Christmas than at home with my family. Try as I might, I just couldn't make a proper Christmas here.
My first Christmas in Turkey I got married. It was a really good, important, wonderful day, but not exactly Christmas-y. Of course my family was here, and we gave gifts and wished each other 'Merry Christmas,' but with the impending nuptials it was somewhat of an afterthought. For the next two Christmases, my folks sent gifts, and we had a little tree with lights and A Christmas Story on videotape, and the year I wasn't pregnant we drank mulled wine all day plus mimosas for our anniversary, but it still wasn't Christmas. Not really. A few times throughout the day I closed my eyes and tried really hard to make myself believe it, but it didn't quite work, not for more than a few seconds. BE humored me but he didn't get it, and A Christmas Story bored him so he went to the barbers' for tea.
So what is it that makes it Christmas? Every year in America, I read the same articles bemoaning the increasing consumerism of the holiday, and they always end with something pithy about how it's not about the gifts and the lights and the shiny things, and everybody goes, 'Yeah, yeah, it's so much more than that,' while thinking 'Hee hee, it is so the presents.' I pretty much thought it was the presents too (or at least, the anticipation of presents) until I came here, but it turns out, it's not. Don't get me wrong. The presents don't hurt. Nor do the wrapping paper or the boxes or shaking the presents or admiring the presents piled under the tree while inhaling that marvelous smell and enjoying the lights and the shiny things. But the presents don't quite do it.
Christmas, or something like it which they call Noel, is getting more popular in Turkey. This has nothing to do with Jesus, and a lot to do with the global market machine and the selling of credit. Someone once told me you can understand a lot about a country by its TV commercials. There's some truth to this. In America, most TV commercials are for cars and food. In Turkey, the majority of them are for banks, credit cards, and cell phones. Other commercials, like for cars and stores, are connected to credit cards, and their competition is over various types of 'points' that can be earned, or how many low monthly payments (called taksit) they allow. The idea of taksit is interesting. You buy a skirt or whatever for 50YTL, which will be broken up into 10 seemingly manageable taksit of 5YTL each, so only the 5YTL appears on your monthly bill for the next ten months. With people thinking they're only spending 5 YTL here and 10YTL there, they start running up huge credit card bills they can't pay, and suddenly Turks' personal debt is getting as big as Americans'. When I first came here 6 years ago, it wasn't always easy to use a credit card, but now you can use them everywhere, even at the smallest mom and pop businesses. People used to run up all their debt among family members. An uncle would borrow money and eventually pay it back, and later he might loan money to an in-law, which would eventually get paid back. Or not. There was a lot of squabbling, and I just giggled wondering why everyone didn't just hang onto their own money. But now everyone owes their money to the banks, which do more than bad mouth you and give dirty looks and serve the cheap tea if you don't pay. And, just as in America, there are a lot of people who don't quite get the idea of credit cards, that it's not free money and it has to be paid eventually, often at usurious interest rates that the less-educated consumer may not have understood about from the fine print. After all, there are so many wonderful things to buy these days!
So every year, it looks a little more Christmas-y in Istanbul. The malls (of which there are a few more each year) are dripping in lights and tinsel, and there are winter-themed decorations everywhere-- snowflakes, candy canes, stars, even a few rosy-cheeked Santas. I'm starting to hear English Christmas songs. Last year, Jingle Bells got pretty popular, and for several months after Christmas, I was still hearing it all over as background music for advertisements and as the ringtone on people's cell phones. TV commercials start gearing up the excitement about the gift-buying aspect, and there are suddenly a lot of ads for clothes, jewelry, and perfume. Families are shown in front of fires in the fireplace, with decorated trees twinkling in the background, lovingly giving one another the perfect gifts.
If Christmas ever felt empty in the US, if it ever felt like a flood of consumerism and fake family love and an excuse to throw money into the air, that empty feeling is nothing like Christmas in Turkey. For one thing, they've got it all wrong. Here, Noel is celebrated on December 31. They also call this yıl başı (New Year's), and since I've been here, New Year's has always been celebrated as usual, with big dinners, all-night drinking, and the expected midnight countdown (though I'm sure that type of celebration isn't traditionally 'Turkish' either). But Eastern Orthodox people celebrate Christmas starting on or around New Year's (I'm not exactly sure of the dates) so Turks now call it Noel, and they've added the gift-giving and all the other trappings of Christmas. So, okay, it's not 'wrong,' it just feels wrong to me when December 25 passes like any winter day without even time off work and everything is business as usual. Well-meaning people might wish me Merry Christmas with something like 'Hey, don't you have some foreign holiday today?' to which I sadly reply that it's passed but thanks, to which they may reply by insisting that Christmas isn't the 25th. And, of course, being here without my family on Christmas, without the perfect Christmas house my mother does every year, without our same decorations and ornaments that have been pulled out of storage and dusted off every year since I can remember, and maybe even just being without the other people in my life who are like me, the whole thing just becomes as empty and as sad as can be.
I don't know what it is that makes Christmas feel nice. My husband will be coming home with us this year for his first Stranger Family Christmas, and I'm at a loss to be able to make him understand what's so great about it, and why we're all so excited. And it's not just the day itself that's nice, but the whole time leading up to it, starting around Thanksgiving. Maybe it's because it's been pounded into me by the US media year after year that Christmas is a special, snowy, magical time where people are extra nice to each other and little kids with leukemia miraculously recover and if you wish for something hard enough at Christmas it'll come true. I wonder if this notion can be traced to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the idea that Christmas brings out the best in us and that bad people can turn their lives around and become good. Too bad it isn't really true. As a religious holiday, it's meaningless to me because I'm not Christian, so it's not that. I used to think it was the gifts and the decorations and the songs, but it's not that either. It could be some other Christmas things they don't have in Turkey, like the Christmas specials on TV, and Christmas music on the radio including the dogs barking Jingle Bells, and the winter ales the microbreweries release, and those garish red Christmas sweaters some people insist on wearing, and the smell of pine everywhere, and the parties, and everyone wishing each other 'Merry Christmas' upon parting, but somehow I don't think it's any of these things either. I'm curious if my husband will 'get it' when he's home with me, but I won't be surprised if he doesn't. That's okay. There's still the presents and the special Christmas food and alcohol, so I think he'll be fine.
I think for me, it's as simple as this: for my whole life until I came here, Christmas has meant home, and for this time of year it feels like I'm as far away from home as I can possibly be. For now, of course, Istanbul is my home, and my husband and my baby are my family. Most the time I feel okay making my new little family in our little home. But around Christmas I feel especially alien, in that I don't share a language or a common cultural currency with the people around me. Throughout the year it doesn't bother me much that my husband doesn't know who Gilligan is, just as he's only upset about my lack of knowledge about and adoration for Atatürk on national holidays. But these days, I'm especially sensitive about the home and life I've left behind. I might be doing a pretty good job making a new family, but I don't think I'll ever be able to make a proper Christmas as good as Christmas at home.