Festival of sweets

With ancient roots in Anatolia, the tradition of hard candy is alive and well today. In every color of the rainbow, these candies add sweetness to special occasions such as religious feast days, engagement parties and social calls.

The Turkish vernacular is full of expressions like, “A girl sweet as sugar”, “sweet-tongued”, “A sweet tongue will get you everywhere”, and “Let’s eat sweets and talk sweet”, all based on candy as a metaphor and frequently used, always with a positive connotation. In Anatolia especially, hard candies of every color accompany important days, reinforcing their significance and ensuring its continuation. Such customs and traditions gave rise to the term ‘şeker bayramı', or festival of sweets, for the holiday that crowns the fasting month of Ramazan, for candies are part and parcel of this feast. People take boxes of candy or Turkish delight when paying ‘bayram’ social visits. Sweets are made at home and served to visitors. And children circulate in a group among the guests, kissing their elders’ hands and collecting the candies that are their due. Throughout the holiday, candy shops display their colorful products in attractive packaging.

Any holiday celebrated with candy inevitably adds color, joy, friendship and peace to life. The estranged make up. Visits are paid to the sick and elderly. Hands are kissed, hearts won over. Orphans are clothed, for making a child happy is the highest of good deeds. Every family invests in new outfits for the children, who are decked out from head to toe in a veritable festival atmosphere. Children await this holiday impatiently and go blissfully to sleep the night before with their new clothes and shoes piled next to the bed. The minute it gets light they bound out of bed and get dressed, ready to meet their fathers who are returning from the bayram prayers at the mosque. As soon as they are back, all the family members from the youngest to the oldest wish each other a happy bayram. Bayram candies are offered around, and the whole family sits down to the table. Having kissed their elders’ hands and collected their money and candies, the children now head for the neighbors to repeat the ritual. Who will collect the most candies? That’s the sixty-four dollar question! And the candies are counted one by one, for the Festival of Sweets is at the same time a children’s festival. 

There are even special bayram venues in Anatolia, Istanbul, Thrace and Rumelia. Places with swings, see-saws, Ferris wheels, and merry-go-rounds with wooden horses, where children frolic and giggle with unbridled enthusiasm.

The children even spend a part of their bayram money on candies. Candied apples, lollipops, candy canes, cotton candy and taffies of every hue are carried around and sampled incessantly. Riddles on tiny pieces of paper are selected with the help of obliging pigeons who use their beaks to pluck one from the table in front of them. On request, scent vendors dab a little fragrance on boys’ collars and the merriment increases as the riddles are read aloud and their significance interpreted: “A dab of rose and violet for little men and little women, for sliders down banisters…”
Small combs and round pocket mirrors are also sold at counters which turn the bayram venue into a virtual fairground thronged with shoppers. We meet another example of this at Nazilli, where the third and final day of the bayram is called ‘gencer’. Buying and eating taffy is traditional on that day. People from the villages buy it and spread it on bread. Hoping the peace it brings will last until the next bayram, they fill the markets and bayram venues and join in the festivities.

When families, relatives, neighbors and friends go to the bayram venues they take with them rose-flavored cubes of ‘Turkish delight’ chock full of pistachios and wrapped in papers on which riddles are printed. Hard candy, sugar-coated almonds and coriander seeds, Turkish delight and special bayram candies are also offered to the neighbors in candy dishes made of china, pottery, silver, glass or crystal in a tradition that still thrives today. Plates made of molded sugar with red, yellow and green lids line candy store shelves during the bayrams and the five Islamic holy nights (kandil). They are also purchased by the man’s family for their son’s fiancée. Placed on them are tiny rounds of sesame-flavored helva. Wrapped in colorful cellophane, the candy-laden plates are arranged on copper trays and delivered to the girl’s house with a ceremonial flair. The two families also observe the Islamic holy night with this ritual. After the rounds of helva have been distributed, the empty plate is placed on a tray and balanced on the girl’s head and then shattered with a small metal ‘candy ax’. The resulting pieces of broken candy are offered to the members of the household. The blessing and abundance of sesame helva expresses the hope that the two young people and their families will get on amicably. As the candy is consumed, expressions such as, “May they get on well” and “May the bride be sweet-tongued” are repeated over and over.

In some parts of Anatolia, the fiancée is even ‘showered’ with individually wrapped candies as she enters her husband’s home. Those in attendance grab them up in the belief that they will bring good luck. This belief is a variation on the tradition of ‘engagement candy', which continues today. In some areas candies wrapped in red cloth are even sent as wedding invitations.

Candy was important in the Ottoman palace as well. Decorated trees (nahıl) were carried through the streets and squares on Ramazan bayrams and other festival days. Symbolizing the tree of life, they were hung with various ornaments made of hard candy.

Evolving over the centuries, the candy tradition continues to be part and parcel of Turkish life. And the urge to keep such colorful, warm traditions alive ensures that societies will continue to sweeten up their religious holidays and other festivals with peace and understanding.