Ask Mehmet: Do the Turks celebrate Christmas?

A statue honors the memory of Noel Baba, or Santa Claus, in front of the Saint Nicholas church in Demre, Turkey. Santa Claus was the bishop of Myra, now Demre, during the fourth century. (Courtesy photo)

A statue honors the memory of Noel Baba, or Santa Claus, in front of the Saint Nicholas church in Demre, Turkey. Santa Claus was the bishop of Myra, now Demre, during the fourth century. (Courtesy photo)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- You might have already noticed shops throughout Turkey decorating their windows with pine trees, snow balls, red stockings, and statues and pictures of St. Nicholas. While it may appear that the Turks, who are mainly Muslim are celebrating Christmas, they're actually marking the New Year.

Many parties are held on the New Year's Eve. On this day, night clubs, luxury hotels and restaurants have special programs and menus and radio and television stations broadcast special programs which last until morning. Generally, television stations air a program or film about St. Nicholas in the early hours of the evening on New Year's Eve for the children. The hope is that the programs make the children happy so that they go to bed early and parents can party all night long.

Although many events are offered by restaurants and night clubs, many families prefer having their own parties at home. Often, several families will get together to celebrate. Wives showcase their culinary skills by preparing richly set tables, and guests spend the evening eating, drinking, watching television, listening to music and dancing.

Because of television, these parties are heavily influenced by American Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. Turkey is becoming popular as the main dish. Some families, especially in big cities, have holiday trees as well. Gifts are exchanged for the New Year, and greeting cards and goodwill messages by cell phones are sent to friends and relatives.

Another tradition of the New Year's is to buy a lottery ticket. Although the National Lottery Administration holds three drawings a month with reasonable prizes, the top prize for the new year challenges everybody to get at least one ticket. Many people ask their friends in other cities to buy and send tickets to them, because they believe they will have more luck this way. This year's top prize is 45 million turkish lira, or approximately $25 million. Everyone is welcome to buy a lottery ticket.

The phrase you say to your Turkish friends wishing them 'Happy New Year' is "Iyı Ieneler (ee sehn-neah-lehr) or Yenı yılınız kutlu olsun (yeah-knee yeh-leh-nezz Kout-louh ohl-suhn).

As for the similarities of the decorations to Chirstmas celebrations, there is a good, little-known reason for that.

Noel Baba

St. Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus to most of the world, is called Noel Baba in Turkey. Few people actually know St. Nicholas was born, lived and died in Turkey during the fourth century. He was the bishop of Myra, now Demre, near Antalya.

A Byzantine basilica in Demre honors his memory, and the tale of his generosity is unforgotten on these shores. The story is of a bishop tip-toeing through the streets of old Myra to toss bags of gold through open windows or down chimneys.

He is said to have been the sole heir of a wealthy family and secretly shared his money with the less fortunate. One story tells of how he gave a nobleman three sacks of gold for his daughters' dowries. The first two bags he tossed through an open window. However, he found the window tightly shut on his third visit. He went down the chimney instead, dropping the sack in a red sock that was drying on the mantelpiece.

Since then, it has become tradition to put oranges in Christmas stockings to symbolize the sacks of gold. Also, the three golden balls that pawn shops use as their symbol originated from this story.

After St. Nicholas died in 323, his priests buried him in an elaborate marble sarcophagus that they periodically filled with fragrant oil. The oil dripped through cavities in the sarcophagus, and the priests had a lucrative business selling vials of it to pilgrims who believed the oil had miraculous powers.

The St. Nicholas Church was built in his memory after his death. The church is one of the oldest in Turkey, dating from the fifth century. Tales of St. Nicholas spread westward, and in April 1087 merchants from Bari, Italy, ransacked the Saint's grave and took his bones to Italy believing they would bring them wealth. Based on that event, Bari and Antalya were declared sister cities several years ago. A few remainins from his sarcophagus are on display in the Antalya museum.

Every year on Dec. 6, the day St. Nicholas died, there's a service in St Nicholas' Church in Demre. Dec. 6 is also the first day of a week-long festival held in Demre sponsored by the Santa Claus Foundation.

There's a bronze statue of St Nicholas in Demre, erected in 1981, which looks very much like the typical Santa Claus with a long beard, a sack over his shoulder and a group of small children gathered around him.