I wrote this back at the end of 2013 – but I can’t think of much to add, so I’m recycling it:
Santa Claus, Mevlana Rumi and the Spirit of Christmas
Of the numerous debates ongoing in Turkey these days, one of the less headline-grabbing, but nonetheless significant, is on the question of whether citizens should (or should not) celebrate New Year.
For me personally, it’s not a big deal. I have lived in the country long enough to have given give up missing the festive brouhaha of Yuletide. For the majority Muslim population, life goes on as normal without holidays and the associated partying. In addition, I have the antipodean’s difficulty of coming to terms with a mid-winter Christmas/New Year halfway through the academic year for schools and universities. It’s just not right!
Of course, it’s that Christmas business that’s causing the debate in Turkey. They don’t celebrate it. Muslims may recognize Jesus as a major prophet, but not of sufficient importance to justify closing the country down. That’s a Christian thing. On the other hand, after the Republic came into being in 1923, one of the early modernizing reforms was switching from the Islamic lunar calendar to the Gregorian solar one. As a result, midnight, Tuesday 31 December will see 2013 CE click over to 2014, as it will for most of the global community.
I suspect, however, that’s not the big issue for Turks objecting to New Year celebrations. After all, pretty much the whole world (including a few avowedly Islamic states) explodes fireworks and indulges in extravagant private and public spending sprees at this time. More to the point is that, in Turkey, Father Christmas (Noel Baba in local parlance) seems to have become established as a popular icon, along with the decorative paraphernalia and retail sector feeding-frenzy associated with Christmas in historically Christian countries.
Ironically, displays of pyrotechnics and white-bearded old guys dressed in red have very little to do with the Christian celebration of Christmas either, which, as you may recall, is somehow related to the birthdate of that religion’s eponymous founder. There are even, and, in fact, there have long been, Christians of a more purist bent, who object to the extravagant feasting, drinking and commercial exploitation of a day supposedly devoted to the instigator of a religion dedicated to the pursuit of a more spiritual agenda.
Despite discussions about the origins of Santa Claus in northern Europe, and links to an earlier Christian worthy, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (now Demre in modern Turkey), it seems that we owe most of our contemporary Christmas iconography to the United States of America, God bless them. Much of it originated with a 19th century academic by the name of Clement Clarke Moore, who penned (anonymously at the time) a poem entitled ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (more likely known to you as ‘The Night Before Christmas’) in which he laid out the key principles of a merry old guy dressed in fur dismounting from a sleigh pulled by reindeer, coming down chimneys and filling children’s stockings with presents. The story was taken up and further embellished in 1902 by Lyman Frank Baum, creator of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, with the final touches being added by added by the Coca Cola Company via an advertising campaign in the 1930s.
So, there we have it. Not much connection to a poor Jewish woman giving birth to her first child amongst the animals in a stable two thousand years ago, so laying the foundation of a belief system that would eventually encompass one third of the world’s population. Then there’s the problem of the date, even with pretty much universal use of the solar calendar. For a start, the actual date of Jesus’s birthday is unknown. 6 January was initially preferred by the Eastern Orthodox Church, who later decided to go along with 25 December, the date selected by Roman Catholics in the 4th century. The breakaway Armenians, however, preferred to stick with 6 January. The matter was further complicated when Pope Gregory XIII decreed a revision of the calendar in 1582 resulting in a loss of ten days. However, Christians in a number of counties, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and the Republic of Moldova, while embracing 25 December, steadfastly refuse to accept the disappearance of those ten days, and continue to use the older Julian calendar, celebrating Christmas on what, in the Gregorian system, is January 7.
Confused? Well don’t think those are the only problems. According to Wikipedia, ‘Yule, or Yuletide, is a religious festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later being absorbed into and equated with the Christian festival of Christmas.’ This pagan mid-winter event apparently went on for twelve days with much feasting, drinking and sacrifice, and was associated with a rather fascinating supernatural phenomenon known as the Wild Hunt, and with the god Odin, or Woden, after whom Wednesday was named.
So, what’s it really all about? Probably you’d have to say, people generally (with the possible exception of those religious puritans) like to find reasons for partying, and Christmas/New Year provides an excellent pretext. Mainstream churches may lament declining congregations making it increasingly difficult to fund the kind of monumental buildings and associated large staff numbers they once took for granted – but if we are honest we will admit that institutionalised Christianity really only latched on to a much older event that was already being celebrated. People were getting together with family and friends, feasting and giving gifts to brighten the depths of winter and look forward with optimism to the beginning of a new year long before bishops, Popes and Holy Roman emperors decreed religious uniformity.
Of course, such uniformity is impossible. “There’s nowt so queer as folk” goes the old saying (from days when ‘queer’ had another meaning). You can scare people into superficial conformity with threats of torture and incineration, or social ostracism, but as soon as you release the pressure they will begin to reassert their individuality. The internal inconsistencies and hypocrisy of organized state religion were evident from the beginning, as shown by constant splintering and breakaway sects. So, on close inspection, the wailing and hand-wringing over Christmas losing its true meaning sound a little hollow.
Sad to say, if you google ‘Why I hate Christmas’ you will come up with approximately 372 million results – twenty-five percent more than the entire population of the United States! Time constraints at this busy time of the year prevented me from visiting all of them, but one site in particular, Eight Reasons I Hate Christmas, made some points that appealed to me:
- All the extra waste it produces. All that gift-wrapping ending up at landfills.
- The awful music – What do you feel like doing when you hear another saccharin rendition of ’Santa Claus is Coming to Town’?
- Frenzied shopping and burgeoning consumer debt.
- Negative psychological effects, including increased suicide rate.
- Tacky Christmas decorations made by desperately poor people in Asian sweatshops.
Scarier to me, however, than the gross commercial exploitation is the evidence I see that state-sponsored, institutionalized religion is fighting back. And it’s not just the Muslims. I began this post with the observation that some authority figures in Turkey are arguing against the celebration of New Year – we assume for religious reasons. But what are we to make of Time Magazine’s choosing the Roman Catholic Pope as its Person of the Year? Whatever the personal qualities of Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis I), the fact remains that he is head of a monolithic, multi-zillion dollar institution with a one-and-a-half millennium history of religious intolerance, promoting violence at local and international levels, sponsoring schools and orphanages sanctioning abuse of vulnerable boys and girls, and expounding a doctrine that supports a hierarchical wealth-based status quo condemning millions to lives of poverty and misery. Am I exaggerating? It seems to me that, even if we ignore its past sins, any church accepting New Left plutocrat Tony Blah into its community of faith without administering a hefty dose of penance raises serious doubts about its spiritual credibility.
So, party on, dude, at Christmas time, say I! And if you are truly looking for spiritual succour in a world drowning beneath a flood of materialism, you may want to look in less-frequented corners. Fortunately, there are sources to be found. One week before (the Gregorian) Christmas Day, Tuesday 17 December marked the ‘Wedding Night’ of Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, better known in the Western world simply as Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic. Şeb-i Arus (Persian for ‘Wedding Night’) is celebrated throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. His tomb, in the modern Turkish city of Konya, is a place of pilgrimage for people of diverse cultures and religious backgrounds who appreciate his non-denominational message of universal love.
Those who do make the trip to Konya will find queues of respectful visitors waiting to enter a green-tiled mausoleum bearing the inscription, ‘When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.’ Interestingly, the revered founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is reported to have said something similar: ‘To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.’ In spite of this, it is difficult to go anywhere in Turkey without seeing images of that gentleman’s face. As human beings, we are constantly subjected to the tension between the transformative power of ideas and the siren allure of material wealth. Atatürk himself, sometimes accused of being an enemy of religion, made it clear that what he was opposed to was the perversion of religion by seekers of temporal power. According to Atatürk, Mevlana was ‘a mighty reformer, who had adapted Islam to the Turkish soul.’
17 December is actually the date of Mevlana Rumi’s death – well, to be precise, it is the nearest Gregorian equivalent, given that he died within the borders of the Muslim Seljuk Empire with its lunar-based calendar. For Rumi, his death was not an occasion of sadness since it brought about his union with God (‘Wedding’ in a transcendental sense). As a result, there was no need for reincarnation or resurrection. The physical body was the cage that trapped humanity in the world of material unhappiness. To die was to escape to a better, if incomprehensible, other.
At the same time, the Sufi path is not a rejection of physical realities. ‘[Rumi’s] poetry and doctrine advocate unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness and charity, and awareness through love’ as the means to achieve personal fulfilment and build a better world on earth. He summarised his practical philosophy of life in seven pieces of advice, the last line of which is an oft-quoted admonishment against hypocrisy:
Cömertlik ve yardım etmede akarsu gibi ol.
Şefkat ve merhamette güneş gibi ol.
Başkalarının kusurunu örtmede gece gibi ol.
Hiddet ve asabiyette ölü gibi ol.
Tevazu ve alçak gönüllülükte toprak gibi ol.
Hoşgörülükte deniz gibi ol.
Ya olduğun gibi görün, ya göründüğün gibi ol.
In generosity and helping others, be like a river.
In compassion and grace, be like the sun.
In concealing other’s faults, be like the night.
In anger and irritability, be like death.
In modesty and humility be like the earth
In tolerance, be like the sea.
Either show yourself as you are, or be as you seem.