Contrast of culture and beliefs

December is a month when millions around the world are counting the days to Christmas.

To grasp just what this means in numbers in Europe and Turkey alone: Research published by Eurostat, a part of the European Commission, shows that in the whole of the EU in 2008 there were some 28 million children in elementary education (excluding preschool and kindergarten). The corresponding figure for Turkey is a massive 11 million. To put things in perspective, Turkey outranks the UK’s 4.4 million, France’s 4.1 million and Germany’s 3.2 million. For smaller countries the number of elementary schoolchildren is far fewer than Turkey as Turkey has more children at school than the total population of many European countries.

In Turkey December is not really a celebrative and festive time across the nation like back home in the US.

For expats in Turkey who are used to December being a festive month it can be a sad and lonely time. The majority of the EU population celebrates Christmas and New Year’s, but only a very small minority in Turkey does. In Turkey Christmas Day is just another workday and New Year’s Eve parties are for secular–minded Turks.

Most professional educationalists would agree that children should be taught about their country’s history, geography and social structure as well as the main world religions and special holidays. I am afraid that all of us have formed our opinions about other countries we have not yet visited based on what we have heard, what we have been taught and what we have read. Turkey often struggles with an image in Europe that it does not enjoy. In more recent years I have been afraid that because of the rise of bigotry and prejudice, Westerners are doing the same in forming their opinions and attitudes towards Muslims. Children’s books can do a lot to form or destroy a young mind’s opinion. Tolerance and love are best learned at an early age.

I began by saying how September is a month that begins the roll of holidays to follow until the end of the year. These Western festivals such as harvest, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are often not understood by Muslims, Buddhists and so on. It is helpful to understand the significance if you are a student living in a country where these holidays are celebrated.

First impressions for many visitors at this time of year to a major city in Turkey may be that Turks celebrate Christmas, but that is not the case. The tree and glittery decorations in shopping malls, homes and town squares are to usher in the new year. The moving of the clock hands past midnight on Dec. 31 is an event celebrated with enthusiasm the world over, including by many Turks who have pro-Western tendencies.

I wonder if you know this fun fact: The first to enter the new year are those living in Samoa and the islands of Christmas Island and Kiribati, closely followed by New Zealand. The last to enter are the Polynesian islands that lie a few kilometers to their east, just the other side of the International Date Line. Turkey is somewhere near the middle.

New Year’s Eve in the major cities of Turkey has fireworks and maybe a light show. In İstanbul New Year’s is traditionally celebrated around Taksim Square. In many parts of the city laser light displays, confetti and fireworks displays usher in the new year. In Ankara the main address is in Kizilay and in İzmir it is in Cumhuriyet Meydani.

We know for the expat away from home at Christmas time it will be a different sort of celebration. One even wonders what it will be like this year, and even if any gatherings will be allowed.

Wherever we are we can celebrate with gifts under the tree, lights in the windows, cards, by sharing turkey dinners with those around you. Fun and food is possible anywhere. If you are like me and believe in the miracle of Christmas, little baby Jesus’ birth, you can take time to appreciate the spiritual significance, reflect and celebrate in your heart.