“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.”

“Yes, 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 25, and that for us it is a different celebration than New Year’s Eve. My Muslim neighbor has never heard about this celebration of Christ’s coming, so I try to explain in a few words what Christmas means to me. I also feel pretty foolish, because there is no tangible connection between Christ’s birth and the green tree with the lights and decorations that I have in my living room. My neighbor is right. It really does look more like a New Year’s Tree.

Celebrating Christmas in a country where Christ is unknown can be tricky. Here in Turkey westernization is alive and well, so we see New Year’s trees, lights, Santa Clauses, and snowmen in the stores. Selling trees and decorations means revenue for the retail businesses, and many Turks have adopted the custom of decorating a tree to celebrate December 31st. The celebration of Christ’s birth on the 25th is completely unknown in this Muslim country.

Honestly, I am not sure what the celebration of Christ’s birth should look like here. We are caught between our customs from home and the culture of the country in which we live. My Turkish sister good-naturedly tells me she hates Christmas trees and feels like they are an imposition of Western culture; my own children, however, would be heartbroken if we did not put up a tree, so we continue to do it. How do I honor the traditions I want to pass down to my children and also show respect for my sister and other Muslim background believers?

Because we live far from home, preserving traditions is important for my family. Together we light an Advent wreath, read Scripture, and sing a carol every evening in December; even our Muslim visitors seem to enjoy this. I also have a much-loved collection of nativity sets that serve as tangible reminders to us 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.

As foreigners who have come to share Christ in non-Christian cultures, we pass on to local believers not only our beliefs but also our traditions and customs. I am honestly not sure what Christmas traditions we should be passing on. Surely decorated trees and manger scenes send messages of Western religion. Since Jesus probably was not even born in December, should we celebrate Christmas at all in the Middle East? On the other hand, celebration is an important part of human tradition, and the rest of the Christian world celebrates Christ’s coming in December. Perhaps believers from non-Christian backgrounds need new celebrations to replace the old festivals that are not relevant for them.

Local churches in Turkey have Christmas celebrations and take advantage of the opportunity to prepare special programs for guests in order to share the message of Christ’s birth. Believers take part in these church celebrations, but I do not know of a culture of family celebration.

I want to be a good model of celebration in my new culture. Most years we invite a few Turkish friends to join our family’s Christmas dinner and last Advent reading. 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.


© 2012 Women of the Harvest.

Question to Consider: How do you seek to celebrate Christ’s birth in a way that is culturally and spiritually meaningful?