If you’re looking for a place to spend Christmas this year, may I suggest Izmir?
Izmir is a city of nearly 4 million people on Turkey’s west coast along the Aegean Sea where I was stationed as an Air Force chaplain from July 1997 until June 1999. Believe me; I have a good reason for recommending Christmas there.
No, it’s not because the House of Mary sits an hour outside the city, or because the Seven Churches of Revelation are found in an afternoon drive.
I recommend it not because it’s the shining example of what Christmas should be.
I recommend it to you so you can see how other cultures view our Christmas.
Christmas in Izmir is like Christmas in a parallel universe. It is the kind of universe portrayed on “Star Trek” when the Enterprise would slip into a stellar cloud and come out in a duplicate universe. In the new universe, everything seemed the same, but there were alarming differences.
Christmas in downtown Izmir takes place in that sort of universe. It’s nearly identical to everything we have in the States.
As my wife and I walked hand in hand, blowing frosty breaths along the coal-dusted streets, the shopping district was much like that of any nice European city.
Since the Turks are masters at reproduction, the store windows were full of the same products sold in our stores. They were duplications of Western materialism, offering clones of fine jewelry, furniture and fashion. Yet only the richest Turks can afford these goods.
Christmas is no different than in the United States. And that was the problem.
In the midst of a country rich in heritage and culture (99.8 percent Muslim), the Turks had managed to duplicate all the greedy things the holiday brings.
I had to ask myself, what had Christmas become?
Had we managed to export everything about Christmas — the tinseled trees, bows, bulbs and Santa suits — and yet forgotten the most valued commodity of Christmas: that God came to us bringing peace on Earth and good will?
It seems to me that if we honor the one for whose name the holy day represents, then we are obliged to export the most important product of the holiday — peace. The kind of peace that is so beautifully illustrated in that well-worn story told by Stanley Weintraub, author of “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce.”
Weintraub tells of the first wartime Christmas when “the Germans set trees on trench parapets and lit the candles. Then, they began singing carols.”
The British responded in like chorus and “by Christmas morning, the ‘no man’s land’ between the trenches was filled with fraternizing soldiers, sharing rations and gifts, singing and (more solemnly) burying their dead between the lines.”
For a few precious moments, there was peace on Earth and good will toward men. The soldiers managed to export the best part of Christmas, the peace part that has the potential to challenge and change people. It happened more than 2,000 years ago in a little town called Bethlehem. And it can happen every time that peace is presented as the real gift.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 may seem more like Christmas tripe, but it is my prayer that it will become a hint at a day when we may reverse the common saying that suggests, “Peace is harder to wage than war.”
Merry Christmas and to yours a Happy New Year. And to all my Turkish friends, Mutlu Noel.