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Christmas a major event in predominantly Muslim Turkey

ANKARA, Turkey—The trees are trimmed, merry lights blink in the store fronts, children spend sleepless nights giggling in anticipation and adults, of course, double-check to make sure the belly dancer is coming.

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas here; Christmas Muslim-style, meaning without the Christ and without the Mass. It takes place New Year's Eve instead of Dec. 25, but it has Santa Claus, the family gathering, the feast and the joy.

"I remember as a little girl staring at the ceiling all night for weeks, dreaming about what Father Christmas would bring," said Ozlem Icin, who's now 17, as she finished trimming a tree. "We're Muslim, of course. But Christmas is the best day of the year."

Turkey is officially a secular country—meaning that religion plays no role in the government—but 99 percent of its people are Muslim. While Islam accepts Jesus as a prophet, it doesn't consider him the son of God and it doesn't join Christians in celebrating his birth.

But unlike much of the Muslim world, Turks have caught on to the European and New World joy of Christmas. The traditions they've adopted run from Christmas turkey to shopping mall Santas (Father Christmas) to shopping-district light displays. In seemingly every major city—Mardin, Istanbul, Ankara—Christmas is a reason for end-of-year cheer.

Adults even complain that Christmas today is too commercial, not as much about family as presents.

Still, there are differences. Icin's mother, Yeliz Kahraman, is one: a belly dancer, an essential part of the Turkish Christmas celebration.

"From the moment the Christmas feasts end until the morning, I'll perform at 10, maybe 15 parties," she said. "It's the busiest time of year for me."

She brings out a series of photos of past Christmas celebrations, showing her wearing a bikini top and a skimpy hip scarf, gyrating in front of a very merry crowd.

"Christmas is great; everyone is happy," she explained.

Christmas makes sense here, in a way. Turkey is the bridge between East and West, where cultures meet and mingle. Its history has both Christian and Islamic empires (Byzantine and Ottoman). According to tradition, the three wise men met up and set off together from eastern Turkey.

Beyond that, modern Turkey, established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, while encouraging citizens to move away from religion also encouraged looking west, to Europe. Ataturk was talking about science and law, but there are few things more European than Christmas.

The date, Dec. 31, splits the difference between the practices of Western Christianity, which celebrates on Dec. 25, and the Eastern Orthodox version, which marks the celebration on Jan. 7. It combines the celebration with New Year's.

Of course, there are religious celebrations here. Just days after the Christmas celebration, most Turks will mark the Feast of Eid, to celebrate the end of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. But even that has a contemporary feel.

Traditionally, families with money would buy, sacrifice and prepare sheep as feasts for friends, family and especially the poor and hungry.

"It used to be quite gruesome here for Eid," Turkish journalist Duygu Gevenc said. "You were afraid to walk around the city while the sacrificing was going on. The sidewalks, the streets, they were thick with blood."

Today, most families don't ever see the lambs. They hire butchers to do the ritual throat-slitting and the butchers make sure the meat gets to the poor. The families then buy lamb roasts or turkeys for their own Eid feasts.

Gulsen Solakci, a Muslim journalist, made the point that while Father Christmas is known to every Turkish child, there's no religious significance to celebrating Christmas here, even though stores are filled with symbols such as angels and stars.

"It doesn't mean anything," she said. "It's all about gifts."

Tulin Senseli, a university professor, disagreed.

"Christmas means a lot to us," she said. "It means family, and love, and caring for each other. It's a beautiful day. I love it."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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