Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Noel Baba .. Happy New Year!

I’ve been asked by a few people why I haven’t written a festive Blog this year, so I thought I’d better grab an hour from the busy day to put a few words down and upload some photos. Initially, I was going to write about how ‘Father Christmas’ or Santa Claus, got his name brand recognition, why people all over the world know his name and general character in one form or other and follow the custom of giving gifts at this time of year. But if you want to know about all that you can easily Google it. So, instead I’ll just let you know what Christmassy type things I’ve been up to lately.

There have been parties and gatherings galore over this festive period, and I received so many invites I couldn’t possibly have attended everything. Fortunately, I have some wonderful friends who insisted on coming round to ensure I didn’t have a lonely Christmas night.
I quickly tossed some shrimp on the barbie, with Cajun seasoning and grilled veggies, a massive portion of my special nachos (is this a traditional Christmas dinner? one Turkish friend asked, to much bemused laughter) and melt-in-the-middle chocolate puddings with hot cherries and sauce, accompanied by Baileys and other assorted tasty festive treats.
After the hectic weeks leading up to the celebrations I could do with a rest and a few days just chilling, but New Years Eve on the beach after the party in a fabulous restaurant in the heart of the Old Town of Kaleici was simply amazing.
A few days ago I attended a friends birthday lunch in Lara after returning from the airport to collect my wife, who was off on yet another whirlwind holiday trip abroad. I spent several days running around shopping malls this past week (anyone who knows me knows I really don’t like these massive consumer palaces), while entertaining, visiting friends, going to late night parties (nothing starts before about 10pm here) and completing my class schedule – no time off for Christmas in Turkey, so thank goodness for two days off at New Year.
How did all this mayhem and magic begin one often hears people say, so I’ve included a little sample of the stories behind the man we call Saint Nick.

Nicholas was born over 1500 years ago in the town of Patara, near Antalya, along the now Turkish Mediterranean coast. His father died when he was young, leaving Nicholas a vast fortune. Instead of spending it on himself, Nicholas started anonymously donating the money to the poor, especially needy children. He rose through the Byzantine ranks of the Church to become the Bishop of Myra (modern-day Demre in Turkey), where he is credited with performing several miracles, including saving sailors from drowning and resurrecting three boys who had been killed by an evil butcher. Today, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, teachers, students and merchants.
The most famous anecdotal fable of Saint Nicholas concerns a poor man (often said to be a nobleman fallen on hard times) who had three daughters. The daughters had no chance of marriage, since their father could not pay for a dowry. One night Nicholas left a sack of gold on the doorstep of the nobleman's house, which was enough for one daughter's marriage. The next night, he tossed another sack of gold through the window for the second daughter. On the third night, the window was closed, so the Bishop climbed onto the roof and dropped the sack down the chimney. The next morning, the daughters found the gold in the stockings they had hung to dry by the fireplace, thus starting the tradition of hanging stockings on Christmas Eve, and also the symbol of three gold balls hanging outside pawnshops.

There is an actual 4th or 5th century Saint Nicholas’s church in Demre, Turkey, complete with statues of Bishop Nicholas surrounded by children and carrying gifts, which is now a museum selling icons and bars of soap and coffee mugs with pictures of the historic site hand-painted on them. I recently took a drive along the coast to visit the birthplace of the revered saint, stopping near the town for some freshly prepared blue crabs that are famously farmed in lowland region where the high rugged mountains push against the sea.

Over the week of 6th December, St Nicholas day, scientists, religious representatives and peace activists arrive in Demre along with the usual busloads of Russian tourists for the annual Santa Claus Peace Award, and of course, various local and international officials make a big deal of their openness, generosity and humanitarian stance.

Anyway, before I digress too far into history and the politics of religion, overall it’s been a busy and exciting year for me, with many changes and adventures, travel and work, performing and writing.

Since beginning the year by driving through the snow covered hills of Bulgaria, flying back and forth to the UK to teach and take courses, living on the Aegean and teaching in a small college, I’ve travelled into the canyons of Cappadocia and down the Mediterranean coast and over the Toros mountains to the beautiful beaches of cosmopolitan Antalya where I’ve been blessed with wonderful opportunities and met so many interesting and charming people who have made me feel so welcome and loved.
Various regions of the nation definitely recognise the holiday in completely different ways. In the little town I was living in last year, none of my students or fellow teachers did anything special for the holiday and many didn’t know Saint Nicholas was from Turkey, or what night was the ‘new year’. Whereas in Antalya people go to New Year parties, dress up and exchange gifts, dance and sing and drink and fall in love over a hectic seasonal schedule filled with the Western activities associated with this time of year, shopping and get-togethers and hot wine and decorated trees.

Noel Baba (Father Christmas) is the Turkish version of Père Noël, the French name for the widely celebrated figure of New Year celebrations. Noel Baba is the bearer of gifts to children and adults alike for the New Year.
Just like the Christian Christmas celebration, in Turkey the jolly red-suited and white bearded man is expected to leave his gifts under a pine tree called New Year Tree. The story of Christmas, and the celebration of New Year gets rather muddled for most Turkish people, many of whom think New Year is Christmas – they even use pictures of Santa Claus in advertisements for New Year’s Eve parties! Though, naturally, they can't figure out how the West confused him with the birth of Jesus.

So, this festive season, between Christmas celebrations with an entertaining group of friends from America, Britain, Turkey, France and Australia, a blow-out birthday party for a colleague, the folly of New Year gift giving, shopping and work, I’ve also been entangled in a series of personal life-changing decisions. Too busy to savour much personal ‘me’ time lately I’ve resolved to take a little time to consider some future choices, and get back into my regime of exercise and meditation and healthy eating. However, I’m going to start planning a Far East holiday soon, I need it! I’ll visit my son in China, or sail along the Vietnamese coast, or just spend some time at the full moon parties in Thailand.

At this time in the New Year, as reflections of the past glimmer like incandescent snowflakes gusting along the tops of the jagged peaked mountains, disappearing into glacial drifts, we look expectantly toward a better future; a new year with a new number and a new name to create the illusion of potential prosperity and success, the hopeful thoughts of a new day.

On this day every year, as everyone hibernates for the day, to recollect and calm the frayed nerves that have frazzled in the excitement of too many days of parties and too many weeks of anticipation, I simply try to feel the capacity for love we all have, put aside the animosity and fear and troubled thoughts to open my heart to the possibilities of this wonderful life, and tell myself that hope is a word for optimistic anticipation – of the potential and promise of a New Year.
I dream that it can be a year when war and suffering end, a year when poverty and unnecessary pain end, and the sadness of broken hearts is reconciled with the thankfulness of moments shared in the honesty of true and lasting affection. There wasn't a magical transformation on the 21st of December, as many thought was predicted. And why should people expect such intervention that releases us from the responsibility of working for peace and social equity? If there is to be a transformation it has to come from within us, it has to spread out around the world as people come together in love and the spirit of giving, the joy of living and the honesty of shared feelings of friendship.

Love to all my friends near and far .. have a great season of joy and peace .. seek the discovery of love and all its subtle pleasures .. and have fun, laugh and enjoy every moment of this fleeting existence - life is love ..

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