Christmas spirit in Istanbul evoked in festive markets

Christmas spirit in Istanbul evoked in festive markets

Emilie Kleding Rasmussen
Christmas spirit in Istanbul evoked in festive markets Beneath the chapel’s high wooden ceiling are 25 tables lined up. People conversing move from one table to another to the sound of traditional Christmas tunes, many holding a cup of hot chocolate in their hands, buying all kinds of handmade jewelry, drawings, sweets, toys and knitted accessories. 

Handmade Istanbul Holiday Market, which last weekend was hosted at the St. Helena Chapel, is just one of the many Christmas markets that have been popping up in the city throughout the season. 

“Before there was only a few Christmas markets in Istanbul, but now more and more events are happening - and this year there seems to be more than ever before,” said Catherine Bayar, the organizer of the market. 

Bayar is an American who has lived in Istanbul for 18 years. She stood behind a table filled with hand-knitted scarves and beanies, and spoke of her background as being a clothing designer and an inventor of the community Handmade Istanbul, a group for Istanbul-based artisans, crafters and markers “who do things the old-fashioned way.”  

It is the group’s third Christmas market, which this year is supporting the St George Hostel for United Nations’ registered refugees. 

The market is “much more about the spirit of Christmas and not about Christianity,” Bayar said.

“It is about helping those, who need it the most, as well as creating a space where people get together from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds,” she added. 

Turks open to Christmas traditions 

According to Bayar, the Christmas markets are not just for foreigners, it shows that a lot of Turkish people seem to have adopted the Christmas culture into their homes. “I think it is good to share our cultures. The more we learn, the less we fight, right?” Bayar said.  

Across the room, a young American woman named Hannah bought two cakes on candy sticks wrapped in paper. “I work as a nanny for twin boys here in Istanbul, so I am going to put these candies in their stockings,” Hannah said.  

Just like Bayar, Hannah experienced that Christmas in Istanbul was all about sharing cultures. “Turks are really open to Christmas traditions. It feels almost just like home,” she said while she continued touring the market to buy presents for the holiday. 

Syrian support 

In the little chapel, where the sun shines through a stained glass, many of the sellers feel connected to Syrian refugees. One of them is Manya Elendary, who herself is a Syrian and has lived in Istanbul for over a year. 

Since 2011, she has created workshops for Syrian women, teaching them how to create handmade accessories like the colorful woven wallets lying on the table in front of her in the market. The money is used to help women in receiving psychological treatments and help them overcome issues they’ve faced in war.

“Christmas markets give us an opportunity to get our stuff viewed - and it really helps us sell our stuff,” she said and explained how many people were asking about the accessories in details.

“People really want to give special Christmas gifts that have a story behind it.” 

Mexican Christmas culture 

In another part of town, Deniz Çelikkol is preparing for his own Christmas Bazaar. He is the owner of the Mexican restaurant Los Altos that will set their holiday event from Dec. 23 to 25.

“There are a lot of people in Istanbul who are interested in the Christmas spirit; many go to Berlin, Hamburg, and Brussels to experience the markets. So I thought it would be a good idea to have our own, so Istanbulites don’t necessarily have to go to the United States or Europe.”

The bazaar, which is supported by the Mexican and Peruvian consulates, will have 22 different designers and boutiques, and there will also be shops selling wine, beer and tequila brands, as well as a chocolatier and a bakery. On top of that, there will be mulled wine and the traditional drink atole, as well as different authentic food from Mexico served.

“We wanted to do something new, mixing Christmas market with authentic Mexican culture while also supporting local designers,” he said, adding that there will also be live music and DJ performances, workshops and talks with writers introducing their books. 

“There are very few Christmas markets here. And those, which are here, are often very little and doesn’t reflect the true Christmas spirit as it is in for example Europe,” Deniz Çelikkol said.

“But we believe we can contribute to the Christmas spirit in Istanbul with our market.”

 Visit the Christmas Bazaar at Los Altos from Dec. 23 to 25 in Istanbul at Tomtom Mahallesi, Yeni Çarşı Caddesi No: 38, Beyoğlu.