On an unusually sunny December 25, the congregation of the Panayia Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul’s Yeniköy neighbourhood lit candles, said their prayers from behind face masks and filed out of the building. Unable to hug one another, people resorted to waving from a distance. Most held up mobile phones to greet loved ones who could not be with them on Christmas Day.
“Taste these cookies from Greece,” shouted Laki Vingas, former chair of RUMVADER, Turkey’s Greek Orthodox community association. “I wanted to be here to celebrate Christmas, despite everything,” he told Inside Turkey. Vingas, a lifelong resident of Istanbul, said that the church was a gathering place for the whole neighbourhood, no matter their faith.
“Today is a celebration of birth,” he said. “We look upon every newborn with hope and optimism. The pandemic has alienated everyone, alongside the fatalities it caused. We haven’t been able to visit our elders and gather with family. But we wanted to be together on this special day to show once again that all living beings can live freely, in harmony, despite everything.”
Another Yeniköy resident, 81-year-old Vithleem Magula, agreed that there was strength in unity.
“Christmas is among our most important holidays. We try to be as cautious as possible about the pandemic. I felt the need to come here and pray despite everything,” Magula said.
Since the arrival of Covid-19, Turkey has placed a curfew on people aged 65 and older, only permitting them to go outside between 10am and 1pm. At weekends, the whole country is locked down. According to Mikail Hanutoğlu, director of the Yeniköy church foundation, the elderly risk extreme loneliness during the pandemic.
Hanutoğlu’s foundation has started a network of volunteers to make contact with older members of the community, many of them Greek Orthodox widows.
“We have had a list of volunteers since the first day of the pandemic,” he said. “Some senior members of our community have trouble with their phones, some need help paying bills remotely. We try to help out with things like that.”
Turkey’s Greek Orthodox community has dwindled to just a few thousand. This year, Hanutoğlu said, they’ve had to tone down Christmas celebrations even further because of the pandemic.
“We used to have children who sang carols at every doorstep in the neighborhood,” he said. “People would invite them in and give them small gifts. We’ve had to move this tradition outdoors only this year. The whole neighborhood clapped and sang together.”
Istanbul is also thought to be home to some 20,000 Assyrian Christians. This year they celebrated Christmas in churches belonging to other denominations, due to health restrictions imposed by Turkey’s interior ministry. A Christmas mass, given by an Assyrian priest, was broadcast on Instagram Live.
“We all feel the same about the pandemic. Everybody wishes we would be celebrating these days with more freedom and more health,” said Zeki Demir, secretary-general of the Istanbul-Ankara Assyrian Orthodox Church.
The Keldani Catholic Church in Istanbul’s central Beyoğlu district also celebrated Christmas with decreased attendance, and shared the event on social media. Rose Mary Samanoğlu, 40, a member of the congregation, told Inside Turkey that she had to spend Christmas at home despite having attended mass at church every other year of her life.
“Christmas is our most special holiday. We attend mass and pray every Christmas Eve,” she said. “We meet and have a drink while we chat with friends and family.”
Samanoğlu said that the Christmas bread her mother gives out to relatives wasn’t as enjoyable when it arrived by post this year.
Churches of different denominations have started to broadcast services online in Turkey, on Sundays and holy days, through Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. Online masses can reach larger audiences, but Samanoğlu thinks in-person services are appreciated by the elderly in particular.
“I haven’t been able to get used to the online masses,” Samanoğlu said. “Faith is a personal matter, but you can’t help but be moved when in a place of worship, whatever the religion. We definitely missed out on the holiday spirit this year, but my parents still appreciated watching mass online. They said they watched it on their phones all day.”
Avedis Bıçakçı, a 42-year-old Istanbul jeweller of Armenian heritage, also missed out on family traditions this year.
“All my cousins would gather for breakfast after Christmas mass every year, and visit relatives on a tight schedule mapped out by my uncle,” he said. “We tried to make do with phone calls this year, but it wasn’t the same.”
Arlet Günter, 59, was one of the relative few who attended mass in person, at Surp Takavor, an Armenian church on the Anatolian side of Istanbul.
“It must have been 25 people at most, the church was practically deserted. It wasn’t a fun Christmas,” she said.
Günter’s family tried to have a traditional Christmas meal, as far as possible. “We made topik, a traditional Armenian dish made with chickpeas and tahini. We laid out a beautiful table and had a meal as a family, but we missed our older relatives,” she said.
Istanbul’s Armenian Patriarchate held church services this year, although the traditional home visits by priests were cancelled. Tatul Anuşyan, Archpriest in the Armenian Church, told Inside Turkey that all celebrations were carried out in compliance with Covid-19 measures, and that they broadcast the event for anyone who might be reluctant to attend in person.
Online broadcasts have also provided a sense of togetherness for members of Istanbul’s immigrant communities. Nathalia Arango Navarrete, originally from Colombia, came to Istanbul three years ago as a student. This year, she was able to celebrate Christmas with her family back home, via livestream from the Cristo Rey church in the Colombian city of Cali.
“Christmas is always such an emotional celebration. It felt good to be with my family, even if digitally,” Navarrete said.