“I like your New Year’s tree,” says my neighbor as we sit drinking coffee in my living room. “You have it up so early, too.”
“Um, thanks,” I say, “We actually put up the tree to celebrate Christmas.”
“Christmas!” she responds, “We celebrate it too on December 31st.”
I go on to tell my neighbor that we celebrate the birth of our Savior on December 25th, and that it’s a different celebration than New Year’s Eve. I try to explain in a few words what it means to me. I also feel pretty foolish because there’s not a tangible connection between Christ’s birth and the green tree with the lights and decorations I have in my living room. It really does look more like a New Year’s Tree. My neighbor is right!
Celebrating Christmas Can Be Tricky
Celebrating Christmas in a country where Christ is unknown can be tricky. Westernization is alive and well in Turkey, so we see New Year’s trees, lights, Santa Clauses and snowmen in the stores. Selling trees and decorations means revenue for the retail business, and many Turks have adopted the custom of decorating a tree. This is to celebrate December 31st. The celebration of Christ’s birth on the 25th is completely unknown.
I’m not sure what the celebration of Christ’s birth should look like here. Honestly, we are caught in between our customs from home and the culture of country we live in. My Turkish sister good naturedly tells me she hates Christmas trees and feels like they’re an imposition of Western culture, yet my own children would be heart-broken if we didn’t put up a tree, so we continue to do it. I have a much loved collection of nativity sets that serve as tangible reminders to my family that Christmas is about the birth of Christ, but I know that locals traditionally view Christians as idolaters. Do those manger scenes look like little idols? I hope not. Despite my doubts, I put them out anyway and simply try to explain what they are to guests.
What should Christmas look like?
As foreigners, we are passing on our traditions and customs to local believers, but I’m honestly not sure what we should be passing on. Surely decorated trees and manger scenes send messages of Western religion. I’ve wondered if we should celebrate Christmas at all in the Middle East since Jesus probably wasn’t born in December. At the same time, celebration is an important part of human tradition, and the rest of the Christian world celebrates Christ’s coming in December. I believe Middle Eastern believers need opportunities to celebrate. Their old festivals are no longer relevant for them.
Local churches have Christmas celebrations and take advantage of the opportunity to prepare special programs for guests and to share the message. Local believers take part in these church celebrations, but there is no culture of family celebration that I know of.
One of my dreams is to write a pamphlet for Turkish women about how they can celebrate Christmas meaningfully with their families. What Christmas symbols would be relevant for Turks? Stars? Lights? Angels? Candles? Surely eating together, reading the Christmas story, and singing songs are good ways to celebrate in any culture. If you live in the Middle East, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
What about you? If you live in another part of the world, how is Christmas celebrated? How do you seek to celebrate Christ’s birth in a way that is culturally and spiritually meaningful?