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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY

The celebration of new year is a recent innovation in Turkey. The Ottomans did not celebrate the new year, their Islamic calendar being completely different from the Julian calendar of the Christian world. However, the season was recognised as one of celebration, since the the Greek Orthodox community celebrated Christmas on 24 December and the Gregorian Armenians on 7 January. The idea of celebrating new year itself, however, was introduced by Europeans, and the first evidence of Turkish Muslim participation in the event goes back to 1829, when the British ambassador in Istanbul held a grand new year’s eve ball on a ship in the Golden Horn.

Several Ottoman statesmen were invited, and after performing evening prayers in the reception hall at the Naval Arsenal, they were rowed out to the ship for the ball. They enjoyed themselves until the early hours of the morning. Commander-in-chief Hüsrev Pa?a declared afterwards, ‘It was an infidel business, but what could we do?

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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY

State duty called and we were obliged to participate.’ In the districts of Galata and Beyo?lu, with their large Christian Ottoman and European communities, the festive week which began with Christmas and ended with new year was impossible to ignore. Although 31 December was a secular festival for Europeans, some Christians, particularly the Greek Orthodox, commemorated it as the day of Christ’s circumcision with celebrations similar to those of Christmas.

It was traditional among the Ottoman Greeks to have a dinner with turkey as the main dish, to dance and generally enjoy themselves. Another custom was to bake new year bread, a round flat loaf containing mastic from the island of Chios and the words New Year written on it. Ottoman Armenians celebrated new year, which they referred to as Ga?ant, a word meaning a banquet. All the family would gather together on New Year’s Eve for a meal lasting late into the night.

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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY
Days in advance the Armenians of Istanbul began shopping and cooking for new year. The principal dishes at the meal were stuffed vine leaves, stuffed mussels, turkey and anu?abur (wheat pudding with dried fruits and nuts). Hasene Ilgaz, former parliamentarian, recalled her childhood days around 1915 and new year celebrations of her family’s non-Muslim neighbours in an interview with Berna Tuna published in Hürriyet newspaper many years later: ‘The days which we looked forward to joyfully were the religious festivals. For us there was no such thing as new year, but as this event approached we were made aware of the fact by the preparations of neighbours and friends, and gifts sent to our house. These included eggs with colourfully painted shells, new year cakes, perfumes, and lavender flowers. They brought them with the explanation that it was their holiday, and we would reciprocate by offering them Turkish delight, new year pudding, poppy syrup and similar refreshments.’ Now let us see how new year became a national affair.
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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY

This began when the Julian calendar was officially adopted by the three-year-old Turkish Republic in 1926. At that time the day after new year, 1 January, was not a public holiday. But in 1927, by coincidence, new year’s day fell on a Friday, then the weekly day of rest. New year was celebrated enthusiastically until the early hours as a result.

That night, for the first time, the electricity company turned off the electricity for one minute at midnight, starting a custom that was to continue for many years. The next new year’s eve was of particular significance for those wishing to try their luck on the gambling tables. Nightclubs were packed, but the most popular venue was the nightclub which had been opened at Yyldyz Palace by Senor Maryosera, who set up roulette tables for the evening.

There had probably never before been so much gambling in a single night in Istanbul, unhampered by any legal restrictions.

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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY
The new year entertainments of Beyo?lu, which had been viewed enviously from afar up till then, now quickly spread around the country. Magazines began to publish special new year issues, night clubs to organise balls, and the national Aircraft Lottery to hold special draws. People fell to celebrating new year as if it had been an old friend, slightly surprised at the ease with which they became habituated to it. A draft for a new law on national feast days and public holidays proposed that the afternoon of 31 December and 1 January be added to existing public holidays. The law was passed, both making up a national deficiency and enabling everyone to officially sleep off the effects of the previous night’s celebrations! On the day after this first day’s holiday, a reporter for Son Posta wrote, ‘This year, new year’s eve passed cheerfully, despite falling at the end of the month and just after the bayram feast day. The nightclubs of Beyo?lu had more customers in a single night than they had had all the rest of the year, and made enough money to make up for a whole year’s losses.
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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY

Yesterday morning the streets were as deserted all day as they are on census days. Those who took the opportunity to enjoy themselves and drink until 10 o’clock in the morning could not recover sufficiently to go out on the streets.’ At new year in 1938 Atatürk replied indirectly through the Anatolian News Agency to new year greetings messages he had received: ‘Many telegrams have been received from citizens all over the country expressing sublime sentiments and kind regards on the occasion of new year. Atatürk is greatly moved by this, and has asked the Anatolian News Agency to convey his thanks and wishes of happiness to all.’ Next new year was overshadowed by grief after Atatürk’s death in November. Turkish writers were astonished at the speed with which Turkish people had embraced new year. Peyami Safa, for instance, wrote, ‘I cannot for the life of me understand the meaning of new year’s eve. What is there to be so overjoyed about? First of all, the world and people become a year older, the universe becomes a year older, yet they call it the “new year”.

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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY

Everyone gets a year nearer to death, but they are delighted, as if losing a part of life were a cause for celebration.’ Novelist Refik Halid Karay was more pragmatic: ‘We should expect neither more good nor bad from the year. If the world is miserable and turning its back on us, then we can take our revenge in this way: By making do with that world, and enjoying our share of its pleasures as far as possible! To put it in philosophical terms, to be opportunist. Let us be opportunist and cheerful. Let us practise at being so.’ Nurullah Ataç, who was not an opportunist and notorious for his cynicism, was in a mood of rare sentimentality when he spoke of new year in 1949: ‘The evening of the last day in December begins with hope in our hearts.

Even if the voice on the radio does not read out the number on our lottery ticket which promised so much and which we kept so carefully, we still believe that the next day will usher in a period of happiness.

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NEW TRADITION OF THE NEW REPUBLIC : NEW YEAR
2000 / JANUARY

This sweet dream lasts for a few days, until we get used to the new year, and forgetting that it is new begin to build delightful visions for a time twelve months hence. A dream of a few days... Is that so little? Is what we call happiness more than a dream, a fairytale which we have invented ourselves, for ourselves, and within ourselves?’ Over the intervening half century our love of new year’s eve has increased steadily to the point where we hardly know how we ever managed without it.

 

 


* Gökhan Akçura is an author.

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