ANKARA: Although Christmas is not officially celebrated in Turkiye, the streets of its towns and cities are already aglow with festive lights, decorated trees and even the occasional Santa Claus. And while Christians make up just 0.5 percent of the population, Christmas traditions have been absorbed into cultural life.
In a land populated by many ethnic and religious communities, the Arabic-speaking Christian community living in southern Turkiye has sought to preserve its Christmas traditions by conducting worship and rituals in its members’ native Arabic tongue on Dec. 25.
There are thought to be around 9,000 Antiochian Christians — commonly known as “Arab Orthodox” — living in Turkiye today, mostly concentrated in the southern province of Antakya, one of the most important spiritual hubs in the Christian world.
Previously known as Antioch, Christians have been living there for two millennia.
There is also a significant Antiochian community in Istanbul, as well as other areas of the Levant, while the community has a large diaspora in Europe, Australia and the Americas.
Like Christian communities throughout the world, the Christians of Antioch listen to Christmas carols, exchange gifts with family and serve traditional Christmas food, but always with a local touch. Christmas trees in Antiochian Christian homes are only taken down after the Epiphany on January 6.
Anna Maria Beylunioglu was born into an Antiochian Orthodox family in Antakya. She is also among the founders and editors of Nehna, an online platform to exchange socio-cultural information and articles on the history and culture of the Antiochian community of Antakya.
For her, December and January festivities have a sacred and special place. She decorates her Christmas tree on Dec. 6, the Feast of Saint Nicholas — the predecessor to Santa Claus — who was born in present-day Turkiye, and prepares small gifts for her family.
Although she is married to a Muslim man from Istanbul, Beylunioglu observes Antiochian Orthodox traditions. Her academic background, focused on the links between politics and food, has given her an additional outlet through which to transmit her cultural heritage to her children and the wider community.
However, she raises her children in a strictly secular way, without imposing any religious identity on them, so they may choose their own beliefs in the future.
“Christmas means to me a time of togetherness with my beloved ones,” Beylunioglu told Arab News. “I do really love the calm it gives me amid all the chaos of our daily life. There is always something magical about being together during these religious occasions with my friends and relatives — be they Muslim or Christian.”
The Antiochian community in Turkiye typically forgoes the traditional turkey roast for the Christmas table, instead serving a special soup for the occasion.
“I prepare the traditional kishk soup made from salted yogurt, cabbage, tarhana, stuffed meatballs, and chickpeas, which is a special taste for those who come from Samandag district of Antakya,” she said.
“Some other members of our community prepare lebeniye soup with rice, chickpeas, beef and yogurt or borani soup. To remember Jesus Christ’s birth, as described in the Bible, I also prepare Helavet Isa, made of semolina, walnut, mastic and sugar.”
The Antiochian community in Turkiye observes a fast from Nov. 15 to Dec. 24 by avoiding all meat and animal products. At the end, they all gather at the St. Paul Orthodox Church in Antakya for a festive meal at Christmas mass, where the Antiochian diaspora from Antakya join their relatives in their native city.
Fireworks are set off in the churchyard, where attendees sing hymns and wish peace, tranquility, abundance and happiness to the whole world.
As she lives in Istanbul, Beylunioglu has not been able to attend the service at Antakya church every Christmas, but she embraces traditional Arabic carols, brightly wrapped gifts and festive foods to express her roots.
“Christmas is an opportunity for us to demonstrate our presence in this geography with all the distinctive characteristics,” she said.
Each year, Istanbul’s Istiklal Street traditionally hosts crowds to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Eve, with people playing accordions, singing hymns, lighting candles with prayers, and offering presents.
The ceremony ends with a commemoration in St. Antoine Church in Taksim.