13-11-2023 - History

Christmas and New Year's Eve in Istanbul: Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey

Istanbul, the heart of the Ottoman Empire, is a city steeped in history and culture. Now, it is a vibrant metropolis that embraces its rich heritage while also looking towards the future. During the Ottoman era, Istanbul was a melting pot of cultures and religions, and this is reflected in the city's many festive celebrations. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Christmas, which is celebrated by Christians around the world on December 25th.

Today's Istanbul, with its rich history and vibrant culture, is a captivating destination to celebrate Christmas. The city's blend of Ottoman architecture, bustling bazaars, and charming neighborhoods creates a unique atmosphere that perfectly complements the festive spirit of the season. From exploring the historical parts of the city to indulging in traditional Turkish cuisine, Istanbul offers a truly amazing Christmas experience. Let’s have a look for the perfect gift to give yourself for Christmas: Istanbul Tourist Pass®.

In the modern era, experiencing Christmas in Istanbul and New Year's Eve in Turkey has been made even more enchanting with the introduction of the Istanbul Tourist Pass®. This innovative digital pass, crafted by a seasoned tourist agency with over 30 years of experience, opens the doors to 100+ attractions and services. With the Istanbul Tourist Pass®, visitors can seamlessly navigate the city's festive offerings, enjoying guided tours to iconic sites like the Hagia Sophia Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, skip-the-line entrance tickets to amazing experiences, discounted hop-on-hop-off bus tours, delightful cruises, and various transportation alternatives. The pass not only simplifies the exploration of Istanbul's historical and cultural gems but also enhances the Christmas celebration by providing convenient access to the city's vibrant festivities. You can fall in love with the rich heritage of the Ottoman Empire or experience the modern delights of Christmas in Istanbul, the Istanbul Tourist Pass® adds a touch of convenience and magic to the holiday experience. So why wait? Buy your Pass Now!

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Early Christmas and New Year Celebrations in Ottoman Times

Christmas was not officially celebrated in the Ottoman Empire but there were early records of New Year's celebrations taking place in Istanbul. These celebrations were often held by foreign diplomats and their families, and they were attended by members of the Ottoman court and other dignitaries.

Today's Istanbul, with its rich history and vibrant culture, is a captivating destination to celebrate Christmas. The city's blend of Ottoman architecture, bustling bazaars, and charming neighborhoods creates a unique atmosphere that perfectly complements the festive spirit of the season. From exploring the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to indulging in traditional Turkish cuisine, Istanbul offers a truly enchanting Christmas experience.

1829: First Recorded New Year Celebration at the British Ambassador's Ball

In 1829, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Robert Liston, hosted a New Year's ball at his residence in Pera. The ball was attended by Sultan Mahmud II and his court, as well as by members of the diplomatic corps and the local elite. This was the first time that a New Year's ball had been held in Istanbul, and it marked a growing tolerance for foreign customs and traditions within the Ottoman Empire.


1856: Sultan Abdülmecid's Attendance at the French Ambassador's New Year Ball

In 1856, Sultan Abdülmecid made history when he attended a New Year's ball hosted by the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. This was the first time that an Ottoman sultan had attended a public celebration of a Christian holiday. Sultan Abdülmecid's attendance at the ball was seen as a sign of his commitment to reform and his desire to modernize the Ottoman Empire.

Christmas Celebrations in Ottoman Istanbul

Christmas was not an official holiday in the Ottoman Empire but there were pockets of Christmas celebrations among the Christian minority, particularly the Armenians and Greeks. These communities held religious services, exchanged gifts, and enjoyed festive meals, creating their own unique Christmas traditions within the Ottoman context.


Armenian Christmas Traditions

Armenians in Istanbul celebrated Christmas with a blend of religious and cultural traditions. They attended church services on Christmas Eve, followed by a festive meal called "noche buona." Traditional Armenian Christmas dishes included stuffed grape leaves, roasted lamb, and sweet pastries.

Greek Christmas Traditions

Greek communities in Istanbul also held Christmas celebrations, often centered around their churches and community centers. They attended church services, sang Christmas carols, and exchanged gifts. Traditional Greek Christmas dishes included roasted lamb, pork, and various sweet treats.

First Introduction of Christmas Celebrations

As the Ottoman Empire modernized and interacted more closely with European nations, Christmas celebrations gradually gained popularity among the city's Christian minority. Churches began holding special services, and homes were adorned with festive decorations.


The Legacy of Christmas Celebrations in Ottoman Istanbul

Despite not being an official holiday, Christmas celebrations in Ottoman Istanbul left a lasting legacy. The city's diverse communities embraced the spirit of the season, adapting and incorporating their own cultural traditions into the festivities. This legacy continues today, as Istanbul welcomes visitors from around the world to experience its unique blend of Christmas traditions.

The Rise of Christmas Markets and Festivities

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christmas markets and festivities became a familiar sight in Istanbul, particularly in the Galata and Beyoğlu districts. These events attracted both locals and tourists, further solidifying Christmas as a part of the city's cultural fabric.

Evolution of New Year Celebrations in Turkish Society

During the Ottoman era, New Year's Eve was primarily celebrated by the Christian and Jewish communities in Turkey. These communities held religious services and social gatherings to mark the beginning of the new year. The wider Turkish population, predominantly Muslim, observed the Islamic New Year, known as Nevruz, which falls on March 20 or 21.

The celebration of New Year's Eve in Turkey has undergone a significant transformation over the years, reflecting the country's social, cultural, and political evolution. From its roots in Ottoman traditions to its adoption of Western customs, New Year's Eve in Turkey has become a vibrant and diverse celebration that encompasses a blend of old and new traditions.

Early New Year Celebrations in Turkey

In the early days of the Turkish Republic, New Year's Eve was not widely celebrated. The emphasis was placed on Nevruz, the traditional spring festival, which marked the beginning of the new year in the Turkic calendar. However, as Turkey modernized and adopted Western-style calendars, New Year's Eve gradually gained in popularity.

In 1926, Turkey officially adopted the Gregorian calendar, aligning its calendar system with that of most Western countries. This shift paved the way for a more widespread embrace of Western New Year's Eve celebrations among the Turkish population.


Adoption of Western Traditions

In the 1920s and 1930s, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey underwent a period of rapid modernization and Westernization. This included the adoption of the Gregorian calendar and the official recognition of January 1 as the start of the new year. As a result, New Year's Eve celebrations began to take on a more Westernized form, with the introduction of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and other familiar symbols of the Western holiday season.

The Rise of Secular New Year Celebrations

While adopting Western New Year's Eve traditions, Turkish society also integrated its own customs and beliefs into the festivities. The wearing of red, a symbol of luck and prosperity, became a common practice. Additionally, the tradition of breaking a pomegranate, believed to bring abundance and fortune, gained popularity.

In keeping with Turkey's secular traditions, Istanbul New Year's Eve celebrations focused on secular aspects rather than religious ones. Public festivities were organized in major cities, featuring fireworks displays, concerts, and street parties. These events attracted people from all walks of life, reflecting the country's diverse population.

The Influence of Globalization

In recent years, globalization has further impacted New Year's Eve celebrations in Turkey. The internet and social media have exposed Turkish people to a wider range of cultural influences, leading to the adoption of new traditions and practices. For instance, the popular tradition of New Year's resolutions has become increasingly common in Turkey, reflecting the country's growing integration into the global community.

New Year's Eve in Contemporary Turkey

Today, New Year's Eve is a widely celebrated holiday in Turkey, with a mix of traditional and modern customs. While Christmas trees and Santa Claus remain popular symbols, there is a growing emphasis on secular festivities and the celebration of new beginnings. Public events are still a major attraction, with cities like Istanbul putting on spectacular fireworks displays and concerts. However, private gatherings and home celebrations are also becoming increasingly popular, allowing people to connect with their families and friends in a more intimate setting.


New Year's Eve in Turkey has evolved from its humble beginnings as a minor holiday to a national celebration that reflects the country's unique blend of tradition and modernity. It is a time for people to come together, reflect on the past year, and look forward to the future with hope and optimism.

New Year's Eve has become a unifying force in Turkish society, bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to celebrate the start of a new year with hope and optimism. It is a time for reflection and renewal, a chance to let go of the past and embrace the future with open arms.

The celebration of New Year's Eve in Turkey reflects a unique blend of Western and Turkish traditions. While Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and exchanging gifts remain popular customs, traditional Turkish elements such as playing okey (a Turkish board game), eating a special New Year's Eve meal called "Yılbaşı yemeği," and wearing red clothing for good luck are also widely observed.

New Year's Eve has become a significant occasion in Turkish society, bringing people together to celebrate the passing of one year and the beginning of another. It serves as a symbol of unity and cultural diversity, showcasing the country's rich heritage and its embrace of modern traditions. Especially in Istanbul, visitors and locals celebrate New Year's Eve and Christmas with great events and activities.

Official Recognition and Transformation of New Year's Eve

The celebration of New Year's Eve in Turkey underwent a significant transformation during the early years of the Republic of Turkey, gaining official recognition and becoming a cornerstone of the country's cultural calendar.

1936: First Official New Year Holiday Declared

In 1936, a significant milestone was reached in the evolution of New Year's Eve celebrations in Turkey when the government officially declared it a national holiday. This decision further cemented the holiday's importance in Turkish society and reflected the growing adoption of Western New Year traditions.


1938: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's Response to New Year Greetings

In 1938, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, sent a message of goodwill and unity in response to New Year's greetings from various sectors of Turkish society. This act highlighted the importance that Atatürk placed on New Year's Eve as a unifying occasion for all citizens of Turkey.

Atatürk's message emphasized the importance of social cohesion and national unity, stating: "The New Year is a symbol of hope and renewal. It is an occasion for us to reflect on our past, to evaluate our present, and to look towards the future with determination and resolve. Let us enter the New Year with a renewed sense of unity and purpose, and let us work together to build a brighter future for our nation."

Impact of Atatürk's Leadership on New Year Traditions

Atatürk's leadership played a crucial role in shaping the celebration of New Year's Eve in Turkey. His modernization reforms and emphasis on secularism contributed to the adoption of Western New Year traditions, while his message of unity and social cohesion helped to establish the holiday as a symbol of national identity.