I’ve been living here in Turkey now for about 3 years now, and have enjoyed every minute of it. Some of those minutes have been stressful for sure, but somehow as I’ve waded the stressful waters of culture learning and language learning, I’ve deeply enjoyed it all.
Christmas in Turkey is always a bitter sweet time. We miss our families so much, the sights and sounds and smells of the season are becoming something of a forgotten dream. This Christmas was especially sweet because of who I was able to spend it with; good friends we’ve made here and with my son who just turned one year old. It’s been such a pleasure seeing his infatuation with the Christmas tree and its lights, and his delight in having new toys in his possession.
Understanding and seeing Christmas and New Years from a Turkish point of view has been interesting to say the least. The resultant layers of misunderstanding have lead to this hate banner, created by a very small political party ironically called Happiness Party.
(It reads “No! to Christmas and New Years celebrations”)
Let me explain the cultural backdrop of this absurd ad, which I find to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year.
1) I would say 60% of Turks (at least ones here in Adana) hold to the idea that Christmas and New Years are one and the same holiday; celebrated on December 31st. A large Wal-Mart-like store here in Turkey sells “New Years Trees”, not “Christmas Trees.” In most Turks’ minds the idea of Santa Claus, trees, “Christmas” decorations are attributed to the cheer and feel of New Years. It’s an easy mistake perhaps, both holidays are very close to each other in the West.
2) Of these 60% there are those who don’t celebrate New Years Eve because it has been tainted by Christmas, a Christian holiday. (And if you are a Turk, I would love to hear your point of view in the comments).
So this ad is really not reflective of the majority of Turks’ views of the holidays, but rather highlights a very interesting characteristic about Turks, that is both their strength and weakness. Mainly that this is an oral culture…mostly. The American Heritage Dictionary defines oral culture as:
The spoken relation and preservation, from one generation to the next, of a people’s cultural history and ancestry, often by a storyteller in narrative form.
(I want to add two things: to say a culture is “oral” does not mean they are “illiterate”, and the second thing, no single culture is solely “oral” or solely “literate”, but are generally characterized by one or the other)
For example, that was not very oral culture-ish of me, I relied on a written authority, instead of relying on what my father or ancestors said, which we don’t do as “literate cultures” in the West. If someone said, “The Americans landed on the moon,” someone from an oral culture would then ask, “Who told you this?” The oral cultural response would be, “Well, my _________ told me,” and depending on whether this feels right or like a puzzle piece, fits in to a previous worldview category, you may or may not believe them. In this case, Turks as a whole (as I’ve found so far) disregard the moon landing, because of the absurdity of it; it doesn’t fit. But say if someone says to his neighbor, “Obama put our president, Tayyıp Erdoğan, in power” they would accept that (which many do) because it fits; because news and gossip columns are riddled with enough conspiracy theories to keep film makers busy for centuries if they chose to film them.
My co-worker was just talking to her cleaning lady the other day about the holidays and they began to start talking about the New Years. She told my friend that she wouldn’t celebrate it because it’s a Christian holiday. When my friend asked her why not, and tried to explain it’s a secular holiday, and that she shouldn’t worry as a Muslim, she replied, “Well, that’s what my father says, so we don’t celebrate it.”
Like I said before, I love Turkey and its people, but transmission of information solely by word of mouth, as is the case in oral cultures, contains a major flaw. No one asks the question, “Well, how do you know? He told you? Then how does he know?” or the question “On what authority do you know this?” and on and on it goes until you get to the authorial intent, or the original occurrence in history like Christmas and New Years. It simply doesn’t happen here, at least not enough.
The result is this: a hate banner that simply shows how naive its propagators are, based on a serious misunderstanding of both the culture and religion they are trying to “protect” their people from.
As a parting thought, as a literate culture, maybe our own weakness is that we don’t talk about things enough, perhaps we are content in simply knowing the truth….but do we?
(I wrote this article not to return hate speech with hate speech (I forgive them), but I’m attempting to understand and write about the cause of such speech, and explore ways a culture operates, and how a culture simply communicates can lend itself to mistakes like this. In actuality I didn’t take it personally, the image of an overweight Santa Claus being clobbered is not very offensive to me, I kind of expect such childish behavior from these people)
***Edited – After reconsidering all the people who I’ve talked with, I upped my estimation that I made in point #1 from 40% to 60% hold that Dec. 31st is both Christmas and New Years Eve.***