Global Holidays – Global Profits

The Christmas and New Year holiday season seems to rush ever faster towards us nowadays. One week we are putting away the barbeque, the next the shops and TV are wall to wall tinsel and Santa. And yet living here, living in a predominantly Islamic country like Turkey, did, to a certain extent cushion the effects of relentless mass marketing and also prevented the weariness and party fatigue so many people now experience long before Christmas even arrives. So on those occasions I did fly home for the holidays and arrived just a few days before – there was genuine excitement a kind of instant injection of Christmas spirit that most people, who had listened to those tired and cheesy old Christmas songs or Santa’s Yo-ho-ho in the shops or on the radio since October, had been totally desensitised to. And yet, even here a blurring of lines caused by the globalizing effect of mass media and a mushrooming of Turkish retail partnerships between European or American backers and their profit hungry shareholders means that is all changing. The marketeers have already begun a subtle repackaging of essentially westernised celebrations and events such as Christmastime and that new kid on the block here Halloween, which makes me fearful there will soon be few places to hide from bludgeoning ads and the conspicuous consumption they always encourage.

Heart break
Don’t get me wrong, there are no Nativities or papier-mâché Three Wise-men making their way across department store windows in Istanbul or Ankara just yet; and the ‘Christ’ in Christmas will always be a stumbling block in a country that is 99% Islamic; although the Koran actually does record Jesus Christ as an important prophet, just not the Messiah. Santa is also something else here – Indeed, the fragments of history that record a Saint Nicholas all seem to point to his existence somewhere in, what is today modern Turkey. However, the Saint part was never going to flourish either after Fatih the Conqueror captured Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453 and converted the spectacular cathedral that was Saint Sophia’s into the mosque Aya Sophia. So Santa Claus also changed and eventually became a much more acceptable entity known as Noel Baba, who no longer has any interest in celebrating Christmas, and has moved his one big annual delivery job on a week. So Noel Baba is famous here for delivering small presents, only at New Year, and quite often leaving them under a small fir tree. Does that sound familiar?

I suppose it is the speed of the change going on in this country that one notices. I have in earlier posts spoken about the rapid changes, notably in health and improvements in life-span expectation etc., although, I would not necessarily see the annual burdening of relatively poor families, with the demands and guilt that a totally commercialised holiday often brings as an improvement. In Europe and the USA the average amount spent on Christmas presents for a child is nearly $335 (£200 or €240) so translated here, that would represent more than $1000 for the average family before any other items like food and tinsel was purchased, or to put that into context $1000 here represents more than two months wages in most areas of the country.

However, some retail behemoths like Carrefour and Tesco’s are already here after quietly slipping into partnerships with Turkish companies, and just-in-time’s, profit hungry daddy of them all – Walmart, recently attempted to acquire the Migros chain. So it may come as no surprise to learn that the media is slowly being hijacked in an attempt to inflate Noel Baba and what is, at the moment the quite modest and inexpensive little holiday that is New Year into a frenzy of spending, which is the only thing their shareholders really care about? If you think it could never happen I will leave you with one last thought.

Two years ago I noticed, for the very first time, and with some amusement, a plastic Jack Lantern and a child’s ghost costume hanging by the cash tills in a huge branch of one of these stores in Istanbul. At the time I told myself it will never work – not because it was new, but mainly because I knew there is little belief in ghosts or the walking dead in Islamic countries like Turkey. However, just two years on, the tat and junk, such as masks, plastic skeletons and witches hats, we automatically associate with Halloween in the west, actually took up a prime display position in a much smaller branch of one of these stores, not in Istanbul, not even in a town but in the little fishing village I call home. And to top it all, a Turkish friend’s two young nephews, knocked on my door late one October afternoon and asked me to explain the concept and mechanics of ‘Trick or Treating’ because they had recently seen how much fun it could to be on their TV.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you – Happy Holidays!