Prior to the city's conquest by Ottoman Turks, present-day Istanbul was known as Constantinople, one of the major centers of the Christian faith. These days, given the profusion of over-the-top Christmas light displays and decorations, it seems that Istanbul residents are interested in channeling some of Constantinople's traditions.
Turkey's population today is roughly 98 percent Muslim. Nevertheless, the observation of Christmas appears to be steadily gaining in popularity. As the weather grows colder, halls are decked, trees are trimmed and plastic "Noel Baba" faces are seen grinning from restaurant windows in increasing numbers. This year, there is even a Christmas-themed film - titled Neeli Hayat and featuring Turkish superstar Yilmaz Erdogan -- that tells the story of a man who in desperation lands a job as a quirky mall Santa in Istanbul.
It's hard to say what is causing Turks to embrace the Christmas holiday, but perhaps it is because St. Nicholas, or Nicholas of Myra, originally hails from Demre, a town in southern Turkey. Another reason may be that increasing exposure to Western television programming and films has raised awareness among Turks about the holiday.
In Istanbul, Christmas displays tend to exclude specific Christian references, in particular nativity scenes. Instead, garland, stars and representations of old St. Nick abound. Decorations are sold in the shops and bazaars of the Old City. One shop catches the eye due to the giant blow-up snowman at the entrance. Inside the store is covered in red and green decorations and signs proclaiming "Merry Christmas." Ironically, the shop, Urgancilik Ticaret, is owned by a Jewish shopkeeper named Joshua and his wife.
As in Western Europe and North America, the Christmas holiday has become closely associated with commerce in Turkey. Shops along Istiklal, one of Istanbul's main shopping thoroughfares, advertise sales and feature colorful window displays. It's clear that Turkish Christmas does not hurt the economy, and may even be encouraged by retailers.
In Turkey, Christmas Eve has morphed into New Years Eve, a night of holiday parties, drunken revels, and late night visits from Baba Noel.
New Years Day (January 1st) is celebrated by the gathering of family, hearty meals and an exchange of gifts. All moments that can be enjoyed by everyone, no matter what faith.
Monique Jaques is an Istanbul-based photojournalist.