This is a question asked by many European tourists visiting Turkey during December. However, the answer is both yes and no, meaning that there are Christmas-related celebrations in Turkey, but these celebrations don’t have any religious implications for the Turkish people.
So let’s explore further the topic of Christmas in Turkey, a secular country with a majority Muslim population.
Is Christmas Allowed In Turkey?
Yes, Christmas is allowed in Turkey. There are celebrations, but the 24th and 25th of December are just normal workdays. Turkish people don’t have any religious incentive to celebrate Christmas, but they like the fun part of Christmas, as we all do.
So, they decorate their houses, and the streets take on a festive note, with decorative Christmas trees on sidewalks and shops and street markets bursting with all the Christmas goodies.
Although Christmas doesn’t hold much significance for Turkish people, New Year’s Eve does. On New Year’s Eve, Turkish people exchange gifts, have family dinners, play games, and Santa – Noel Baba to Turkish people – visits kids.
The Christian community in Turkey, however, celebrates Christmas; they go to churches, exchange gifts, and do everything you would do on Christmas day.
The History Behind Christmas In Turkey
It is believed that the idea of Christmas originated in Turkey thousands of years ago, which might be why Turkish people cannot completely let go of the idea of Christmas. The idea of Santa Claus and Christmas was born in Anatolia.
Santa Claus translates to Noel Baba in Turkish; it also means Father Noel. Noel Baba was someone who lived in the 4th century; his name was Nicholas. He lived with his rich family in a place called Patara, which was a town located on the southwestern coast.
Once his parents passed away, he inherited a huge fortune. After some time, he decided to join the church; he was the bishop of Myra, which is now known as Demre.
Nicholas was a generous and kind man, so he would climb up to the roofs of people’s houses and throw coins down the chimneys. One day he was caught in the act, and his identity was exposed, which is how the story of Santa Claus began.
After Nicholas passed away, a memorial was built to honour him, and he was made a saint; Saint Nicholas was the name given to him.
Over the years, December 6th became the day of Saint Nicholas’s feast, and later, December 25th was declared Christmas Day.
With time, the two events became one event, which we now celebrate on Christmas Day.
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day is a bigger celebration than Christmas in Turkey. This is one of the major holidays in Turkey. Families and friends get together to celebrate the day, and there are numerous customs associated with it.
There are many special New Year’s Eve TV programmes, and before midnight, there’s a special lottery draw on TV.
People stay up until midnight participating in various games; one popular game is Bingo. Turkish people put up all the Christmas décor, trees, statues of Santa, and fairy lights to celebrate New Year’s Day.
Come midnight; the entire country joins together in one big celebration with lots of fireworks. As for gifts, Turkish people like to gift each other red underwear. According to Turkish customs, wearing red undergarments on New Year’s Eve brings you luck.
There are many other customs; for example, opening a padlock means you’ll have good fortune next year. Also, don’t be surprised if you find doorsteps sprinkled with salt.
Is Christmas A Holiday In Turkey?
No, it’s just a normal workday, although people partake in decorating their homes and streets.
How Is Turkey In December?
This is early winter in Turkey, so the temperatures are mild, but travellers from Northern Europe and Northern America won’t find the weather to be that cold.
This is a great time to enjoy all the popular sights in Turkey. But the inland regions tend to be colder than the coastal areas; mountainous areas can be extremely cold.
Turkey doesn’t see much rainfall during December. But Bodrum, Istanbul, and Pamukkale see some rainfall, and Antalya, a coastal region, is warm in December.
If you visit Turkey in December, you’ll see Christmas decorations. But they are mostly in celebration of the upcoming New Year’s Day.
Why Do Turkish People Put Up Christmas Trees?
Although these trees look like Christmas trees, they are not Christmas trees. These are New Year’s trees called Yılbaşı Ağacı in Turkish. According to historians, the tree was originally called the Wish-Making Tree.
How Is Christmas In Istanbul?
Turkey’s city that never sleeps, Istanbul, offers visitors a good blend of Christmas and New Year festivities. If you are going to spend your Christmas holiday away from your friends and family, you can rest assured that you are going to have a great time in Turkey.
This is also an excellent opportunity to feel the change of pace in the city and how people get ready for New Year’s Day. What’s more, the city offers you a unique selection of Christmas presents.
However, as with everything, there are good things and bad things about celebrating Christmas in Turkey – but don’t worry, the bad things aren’t all that bad.
Pros of Celebrating Christmas in Istanbul
One of the best things about celebrating Christmas in Istanbul or the whole of Turkey is that everything functions as it would on a normal day. All the businesses are open, including banks, shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions.
You also get the Christmas weather in Istanbul. While it certainly does not get as cold as it would in Northern Europe, it can get quite chilly during December. You might also find a thin cover of snow in some areas, especially the mountain regions.
As for Christmas shopping, you’ll have many shopping opportunities. There are plenty of Christmas markets; they are not about religion but about the festive spirit, which won’t make a difference to a traveller wanting to have a good time during the season.
You can also treat yourself to a hearty Christmas meal at one of the restaurants. The hotels, cafes, and restaurants do special Christmas meals on Christmas day. The meal will comprise all the regular Christmas food choices, including turkey and trimmings.
If you want to have the religious element of Christmas in your celebrations, you can go to a church. Even though Istanbul doesn’t celebrate Christmas as a religious festival, there are churches that host Christmas day services and Christmas eve mass.
Cons of Celebrating Christmas in Istanbul
For one, you won’t find a lot of jingle bells; if you are visiting with kids, jingle bells might be something your kids look forward to.
In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, the city tends to get packed with tourists. So, you might want to make your hotel reservations in advance – needless to say; hotel rates go up during this time.
The weather might be a pro or a con depending on what you like – the weather in Istanbul might be a con if you want to escape the cold weather.
Recommended reading: Does it Snow in Turkey?
Places To Visit In Turkey During Christmas
Turkey is an excellent destination to spend your holiday season, and if you are here during Christmas, here are the places where you can have the best experiences:
Special Christmas experiences and Christmas markets await to spoil you. And added to the list of attractions are museums, bazaars, and gourmet Turkish dishes.
Hot air balloon rides and gorgeous landscapes are two reasons for you to visit Cappadocia during Christmas. Also, there’s a good chance you’ll find snow here.
Historical sites like ancient Armenian churches are the biggest attraction here.
An excellent destination for history buffs, Ephesus doesn’t see a large number of tourists during Christmas, which means you can enjoy all the attractions to your heart’s content without having to contend with crowds.
The Kackar Mountains
Visit here for snow-capped mountains and great hiking trails. The region is popular for ski tours during winter.
This is a known summer destination in Turkey, meaning there won’t be many crowds during winter. Hot springs and thermal baths are the main highlights.
Known for Ottoman architecture, Bolu has gorgeous nature that changes with the season.
With a mountainous backdrop, this UNESCO Heritage-listed Bursa offers an array of activities during winter. The picturesque appearance that transforms into winter mode is the main highlight.