A quiet Christmas for Istanbul's shrinking Greek community

Istanbul’s Greek minority, which gets smaller each year, is preparing once again for Christmas in the Kurtuluş district on the city's European side, but with less enthusiasm than in previous years.

What makes Kurtuluş, which used to be named Tatavla, unique is that, Christmas festivities there start around Dec. 25, the Christmas day for Catholic and Protestant communities, and end on Jan. 6, the Orthodox Christmas.

On Kurtuluş street shops are decorated with lights, pine trees, and father Christmas figures. Tuana is a well-know meze shop in the district, which is popular for those celebrating Christmas.

“This year looks less colourful. People are desperate and unhappy. But, anyway, Christmas makes someone happier. We can see that on the faces of our customers,” the owner of Tuana says.

“This year it is a bit spiritless, the business is not like the old times. I mean there are customers coming, but the mood is not like the old days,” Mr Ayhan, the owner of a souvenir shop tells Ahval.

Another popular stop is Üstün Palmie patisserie where one can find all types of Greek specialities eaten during Christmas.

”The morning after Christmas people want to eat something sweet. This is why we eat a special cake. We call it Vasilopita. On the cake we write the new year to come and put some coin inside it. The person who gets the part of the cake with the coin is believed to have a lucky and happy new year,” the chef of the patisserie said.

Greek Christmas specialties
Greek Christmas specialties

Another Greek speciality is Mandolet, a sort of confectionery made up of halva wrapped in coloured packages. Greeks put Mandolet under their pine trees with their presents and offer them to each other at Christmas night.

The shrinking number of Greeks in Istanbul affects the ambiance of Christmas, the chef said, adding that he nevertheless was happy to see the joy on the faces of his Greek customers.

Mr. Süha, a long-time resident and the owner of a bookshop, said the general atmosphere of anxiety in Turkey had also affected Christmas.

“Only five years ago, nearly all shops had decorations of some sort. Now there is only a handful of them. People have lost their spirits,” he said.

This is the only place in Istanbul where Christmas is visible, Mr. Süha said. “We feel that excitement is falling. The preparations were important, even if they were done only for business purposes. Now it has become so deserted,” he said.

Mr. Kostas, a Greek resident, said Christmas did not mean much to him because he was not religious. “This was also a cultural thing. But now there are no Greeks left to celebrate Christmas,” he said.

“We try to continue our rituals, though it is becoming difficult. Just think, there are at most 3,000 Greeks left in Istanbul and they are spread to different parts of the city. You can not visit your neighbours for Christmas, because you have no Greek neighbours left. Can this be a Christmas,” he said.

Mr Yorgos, his friend, also talked about the old days.

“There was the excitement of Vasilopita. We wondered who would get the coin. The joyfulness of childhood. In fact pine tree is not a Greek ritual, but we tried to adapt it by putting mandolins under it. Our houses were decorated with kokinas [flowers named after the Greek kokinos, meaning red], the best dishes were cooked, we prepared lists of people to be invited,” he said.

“How many years have passed without buying mandolins. A community does not have any energy or future without young people. Unfortunately, Istanbul Greeks today lack such a mood,” he added.