The War On NYE
The politics of a Turkish holiday
I can’t really call this newsletter Kültürkampf without writing a few words about New Year’s Eve (NYE) in Turkey.
As in many non-Christian societies these days, people in Turkey confuse and/or conflate Christmas with New Year’s Eve. This is due to a very understandable, yet common misconception. The Gregorian calendar takes as its “point zero” the birth of Jesus (Anno Domini, literally, “in the year of the Lord,”) so it would make sense for the calendar to start with his birth. Western Christianity also celebrates the birth of Jesus (to world-consuming commercial fanfare) on December 25, which, when looking from the distance of a Muslim country, is close enough to the end of the year to confuse with NYE.
That’s not the case of course. Christmas falls on December 25 for all sorts of historical contingencies. Like all holidays, Christmas is an amalgamation of various traditions, in this case mostly Christian and pagan.
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What’s important for us right now is that the popular perception in Turkey is, more or less: Christmas = NYE.
Ordinarily, an overwhelmingly Muslim country wouldn’t even think about celebrating Christmas. We have two big religious holidays of our own that keep us pretty busy. But people do want to celebrate NYE. It makes sense. If we use the Gregorian calendar, which we have since 1926, we might as well throw a party to mark the beginning of a new year. The trouble is that the holidays are bleeding into each other, so Turkish NYE often comes with Christmas decorations, gift giving and turkey-eating, especially in its middle class version.
Here’s an episode of 2000s hit sitcom Çocuklar Duymasın (literally “don’t let the kids hear,”) depicting a middle class family in Istanbul. You don’t really have to understand what’s being said, but the family and their friends go through a gift-giving phase, then watche TV, and the couples kiss each other after the countdown.
Below is a trailer for a new Disney+ movie Yılbaşı (“New Year,” or just NYE) which I haven’t seen, but it’s basically looks like an updated, glossier version of the above.
So what if people combine Christmas and NYE a bit? It’s mildly irritating, like pineapple pizza, but hey, it is what it is. Holidays, like the cultures they are a part of, have very complicated genealogies. They are never purely a single thing, they swirl through time, adding and dropping things as they go. Observance is mostly a matter of taste, not correctness.
That is probably not the case for you if you’re serious about Islam and/or the restoration of Ottoman civilization. Because if you are, you tend to believe that something like a bastardized NYE/Christmas celebration is the manifestation of cultural degeneration and ultimately, submission to Western dominance. That’s why, for as long as I remember, conservatives in Turkey have campaigned against the celebration of NYE.
The purest form of this protest can be found in the sermons of popular preachers. These are mostly puritans who speak on this topic every year around this time. Below is a compilation of speeches that İhsan Şenocak and (briefly) Halil Konakçı have done on Chirstmas/NYE:
I won’t translate the whole thing, but basically, these preachers don’t simply see NYE celebrations as unorthodox, they see them as heretical. Once you get into the references they make, it also becomes very hard to distinguish the theological from the political arguments. Not that these guys try. İhsan Şenocak, for example, says at one point:
You now see preparations, in the shops and on screens, you see preparations in the cities. So Muslims, believers [mumin], my brothers, whence did this come to us? Whence did it infect us? From the West! Now they prepare for entertainment, now they are going to be joyous [keyif yapacaklar], they will gather at stadiums and squares. But why will they gather in London, in Paris, why will they have fun? Because of the blood they spill in Aleppo, in Aleppo and in Hama they have killed our Hamzas and our Enes, our Abdullahs. In Egypt, they have imprisoned our brothers, in Myanmar they have dirtied the chastity of Muslim women in front of the eyes of their fathers.
If you’re reading this in Paris or London, you may be thinking “I don’t know anyone who rapes innocent women in Myanmar and gathers at nearby stadiums to celebrate.” Well, the ignorance of how NYE (or for that matter, Christmas) is actually celebrated in Western countries is very common in these circles. It’s not like these people go on exchange programs in Europe or watch American sitcoms. They don’t really know Westerners celebrate these things, but I think they find it reassuring to assume the worst.
If I had to choose among sermons though, I’d probably prefer Nurettin Yıldız’ crisp 1 minute treatment of the topic:
Do you think I would tell you not to celebrate Christmas on NYE? I would consider this, to address you saying “don’t celebrate Christmas, Christmas is fake” to be an insult to you. I would consider it an insult. Because you are the youth of Mohammed, blessings and peace be upon him. You do not compromise in the face of heresy [kufr].
A little less hellfire, a little more positive encouragement. It ends up being a bit passive-aggressive though. You can really tell that these guys are looking around, after 20 years of AK Party rule, and are getting a little impatient at how long it takes to accomplish their goals. They might even suspect that they’re losing the culture wars, which they should.
The below video is from this year. It’s Aegean University Hospital in Izmir, and the person making the video says that people there have been waiting for an hour to be registered. He then goes into the department and observes how people are holding an office NYE party. He then walks in and tells a woman in a funny hat that people have been waiting and that they need to be registered. He’s polite but insistent, “whoever does the registration should take a look. You can hold your celebrations, but please, it’s been an hour.” The woman goes back into the party, the man filming says “is this right to do during work?” and the subtitle reads “you decide.”
The video is a bit fishy of course, since we don’t have the real context. I don’t know how long people were waiting, whether they were actually waiting because of the office party, or how long the wait usually is. Holding any kind of office party while business is piling up, especially if said business relates to health, is obviously deplorable.
The video, and the Islamist outlets that spread it, imply that NYE celebrations, because they are foreign, impede the natural flow of life. In this view, the country would be more livable, more prosperous and more functional, if only people were authentically present in the indigenous culture. It’s also pointing the finger at doctors as a group, who are considered elitist, greedy, anti-government, unpatriotic and borderline treasonous. It’s why violence against doctors has gone up significantly in recent years. The image of NYE celebrations fits right into that conflict.
In this environment, celebrating NYE, especially with an emphasis on Christmas symbols, has become an act of defiance. The doctors might feel like holding such an office party because they want to signal to each other that they have control over their own environment, that they can still make some decisions. If anything, Christmas symbols have become even more common in NYE celebrations of late, especially in the big cities. Few self-respecting middle class homes these days go without some form of a “New Year’s Tree:”
The government doesn’t like to intervene in these issues directly, but it isn’t shy about directing official channels towards its cultural goals. This year, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) put out a sermon to be used in mosques across the country, helpfully published in Turkish and English on their website:
We live in a time when moral values, customs and traditions are deteriorating, and cultural alienation is rapidly increasing. One of these cultural degenerations is the New Year celebrations. However, the festivities organized under the name of New Year’s Eve, the symbolic figures in these festivities and the cutting down of pine trees have nothing to do with our history and culture. Our sublime religion, Islam, forbids alcohol, which is the mother of all evil, and gambling, which destroys homes and families and causes murders. Lottery, bets and all games of chance, which are different types of gambling, are also forbidden and sinful acts according to our religion.
It’s very common in these circles to equate Western customs with promiscuous and addictive behavior of all kinds (gambling, drinking, fornication), and that’s certainly what they have in mind here.
Key in the sermon is also the hadith (sayings of the prophet) most preachers use to justify the prohibition on NYE celebrations:
Societies are known and remembered for their values. They live and keep standing by their values. Our Prophet (saw) warns his ummah about this issue:مَنْ تَشَبَّهَ بِقَوْمٍ فَهُوَ مِنْهُمْ “He who imitates any people (in their actions) is considered to be one of them.” So, let us hold fast to our values, which make us who we are, sustain us and are our strongest refuge. Let us not reflect on our lives superstitious customs and traditions that are incompatible with our faith, history and culture.
I don’t think this can be dismissed lightly. People do choose their holidays according to their political affiliations. That’s why Ukraine, for example, appears to be gradually moving from Orthodox Christmas on January 7th to Latin Christmas on December 25th. Turkey is moving in the other geopolitical direction, and thus wants to sever its links to Christmas. It makes sense.
There is of course, a very permanent way to control how people celebrate the passage of the calendar year: change the calendar. Not that the government is going to admit it, but I believe that they intend to gradually roll back the use of the Gregorian calendar and bring back the Islamic (Hijri) Calendar. They do this by staying above the fray on NYE celebrations, while increasing the presence of the Islamic calendar in political life. Here, for example, is Erdoğan marking the Islamic new year:
Such a switch would be difficult to do, but it could be done. It would certainly be easier than reverting to the Ottoman alphabet, another dream of the far right. More on that, perhaps, in another post.
For now, I wish you all a happy new year!
Of course if you’re Turkish, try not to celebrate too hard. You never know what might happen:
Left: brother Aykut, how are you?
Right: what’s going on?
Left: oh I’ve become Christianized because I celebrated NYE.
Right: how’s that possible? And suppose it is possible, why did you become a priest?
Left: I guess I just got very Christianized with all the belly dancers, alcohol, bingo games and presents. İsmet celebrated abroad and he just straight up became a cardinal.
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