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Celebrating "Syncretismas" in the land of the shapeshifters

My PhD professor and mentor Roy Ascott, to whom I owe far more than just this one word is the one who coined the term “syncretismas” a few years ago when he sent out a syncretic season’s greeting. It fits what goes on here, an essentially non-Christian society, to a tee and I have thus embraced it wholeheartedly in describing the occurrences around this time of year in what I think of (mostly quite fondly but sometimes also critically) as the land of the shapeshifter. Today I went to a cut-price hyper-market to stock up on household utensils, cleaning things and so forth. And then later I took a stroll around Kadikoy market. And since the preparations for “Syncretismas”, which is celebrated here on New Year’s Eve in the shape of a completely secular, non-religious “Christmas”, are well under way I took the opportunity to document some of what I saw, to share with people who do not know my culture. So, without further ado, we kick off with what would have to be the all time symbol of Syncretismas: The alem tree ornament, needless to say hugely favored by the more devoutly religious Muslim crowd:

The “alem” is the metal part at the very top of a minaret. Usually there is a sickle moon at the tip, sometimes there isn’t. The ones with the moon are of course very popular and sell out very quickly. So, what is left over today are the regular ones. The good news is that this year they also seem to be selling separate little moons and stars which you can screw onto the thing if you wish to. This goes on top of the tree, where you would normally have the angel or the star on a Christian Christmas tree.

Efes is the Turkish Budweiser (so to speak). However, Raki is the thing which really puts a smile on our faces… Rivers of it get consumed on Syncretismas!

Bit of a traffic jam in the ornament aisle?

The city decorates the main avenues and streets with fairy lights and shops (no matter how modest) do their bit to add to the season’s cheer as well.

Haci Bekir is the place for traditional Turkish sweets, specifically the lokum i.e., Turkish Delight (which in no way resembles its British namesake by the way). Please click on the image above to get a closer look at the “Turkish” parachute of Santa, decorated with sickle moon and stars. Very nice samovar too, on the left…

Every segment of the population celebrates Syncretismas. The well heeled at fancy restaurants along the Bosphorus or at elegantly catered home affairs, the modest folk with a home cooked meal. There is a traditional Syncretismas dinner with turkey (yes! you heard right!) where families and friends get together. However, we have replaced the stuffing with a special Turkish rice dish. And we have traditional Turkish meze (tapas) before. And for afters: Baklava and Yule-log? On the same plate of course!

Santas are very popular. Last year we had this little drummer Santa all over the place. If I catch him being sold again this year, I will definitely add a picture of him to this post later since he is really hilarious. This year we seem to have a mountaineer version, complete with backpack and rope ladder. Does any other country have this? Or are we the only lunatics on the planet?

Gifts are exchanged. Again, each to his own means: The glitzy types swap Bulgari’s, the modest folk go for  – well, modest stuff…

One thing about Turkish Syncretismas is that once the grub has been demolished at home or at the restaurant it is also big time party time! Istanbul has literally thousands of night time entertainment venues and they all dish out the goods for the disco crowds. However, what almost everyone, young and old and rich and poor alike, does is go out to a street party at least for some part of the long night. The major ones are organized by our (avowedly Muslim!) city administrators. The biggest one is at Taksim Square and I believe well over a million people attend it every year. There are live bands who perform until nearly daybreak on multiple stages, Efes gives away free beer and at midnight there is a huge fireworks display over the harbor. And then there are scores of street parties on all the smaller squares as well. Some organized by the municipalities and some by neighborhoods. Although the amount of drinking is phenomenal there are hardly ever any incidents. This is one night when people want to celebrate together in joy.

And finally: The red knickers! I am not sure if other cultures have this as well, however here it is a long held belief that if you are wearing red knickers at the chime of midnight, you will have lots of money in the new year. Never tried it, so I cannot vouch for it’s working or not. What I do know is that shops and markets fill to over-spilling with red underwear at this time of year…


Don’t ask. I live here. I am from here. And I love it here. Do I understand this totally bizarre culture which seems to be achieving such an unexpected synthesis between religions and cultures? How could I possibly? One thing though: Apparently, historically Turks celebrated the winter solstice during the long millenia of their nomadic/shamanic sojourn, only to be interrupted briefly during the past few centuries of Islam. Today Turks are Muslims, but mostly, if not indeed invariably, Muslims of a very strange melange. The shamanic thing survives somewhere deep inside, I think. And “Syncretismas” may well be yet another manifestation thereof.

This year I will be spending Syncretismas, aka. the Turkish New Year’s Eve (Yilbaşı as we call it), with my aunt who recently lost her husband, with whom she has spent the last 50 “Yilbaşı”s. She also has an orthopedic problem for which she will have surgery early in the year. So, we will not be hitting the streets, but spend a quiet evening together at her home. Which I am really looking forward to given the funny, charming, intelligent companion that she is.


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