Christmas in Cappadocia

Winter - Cappadocia, Turkey
Zafer Yazici, Flickr

I used to hate Christmas.

Christmas was not a happy time in the McLachlan household. A holiday that emphasized the joys of family did not go over well with a group of people who couldn't stand each other. Gifts were grudgingly given and indifferently received. The turkey was consumed in edgy silence. The worst of it all was that everyone was expected to paste on smiles and pretend they were having a great time.

That all changed when I spent my first Christmas away from home, in 1993. I had just started a year crossing Asia, and mid-December found me in Cappadocia, Turkey.Cappadocia is a large valley set amid three volcanoes that millions of years ago blanketed the region in a thick covering of ash. Over the ages, the ash compressed into tuff, a soft stone that's easily eroded or cut away, and the elements carved it into a wonderland of towers, snaking valleys and surreal formations. Ancient people dug into the tuff to create vast, multistory underground cities that could house thousands.

The snowy winter of 1993 showed off Cappadocia at its best. I spent serene days exploring the maze of ridges and valleys, the only sound the crunching of my boots in the snow. I'd climb cliffs to visit the carved-out dwellings of ancient civilizations and admire the tall spires called "faerie chimneys," each with a little cap of snow. I'd sit in chapels hewn by medieval monks and painted with religious scenes still visible 1,500 years later. Sometimes I'd exchange greetings with a shepherd or an old woman hauling home firewood, but mostly I was alone with the snow, the wind and history.

I stayed at the Köse Pension in Göreme, a typical backpackers' hangout, with an international crowd of 20-somethings who had ended up there at what, for them, was a special time of the year. With Christmas less than 2 weeks away, many of the backpackers had decided to stay to spend the holiday in those strange and lovely surroundings. So it was that two dozen young men and women from around the world found themselves forming a friendly little community, swapping travel stories and talking about their plans for where they'd go next.

One night, 10 days before Christmas, Dawn, the Scottish owner, announced that we were going to have a Christmas party. Everyone thought that was a great idea. Dawn's daughter in particular was ecstatic. I and a British backpacker named Simon were sent to Ankara to get supplies, including some sugarcane for the little girl.

Once we returned, our backpacks loaded with treats, Dawn brought out a Santa hat-where she got one in Turkey was a bit of a mystery-and at dinner she passed it around so each person could take a name. My diary tells me I got Janine, a New Zealander whom the intervening years have erased from my memory.

Shopping for our Secret Santa gifts turned into a big joke. Back then, Göreme was much smaller than it is now. There was only a single street of shops, and we all spent the next morning sneaking around that one street trying not to be seen. I managed to buy Janine an embroidered hat without getting spotted.

Christmas Eve was spent decorating the tree and cooking. Dawn had some tinsel and a collection of decorations that we hung on the tree and around the dining room. When not standing atop a ladder making a Turkish house look Christmassy, I was busy in the kitchen. I've never been much of a cook, but I did my share of cutting, slicing and dicing under Dawn's tutelage. There was lots of work to do, so the kitchen was a pleasant chaos of people preparing food and chatting happily as the fragrances of a dozen different dishes began to fill the room. I can't remember any of those conversations, but I do remember laughing a lot.

The work was fueled by heaps of roasted chestnuts, sugared almonds and highly addictive sugared chickpeas. The ease with which everyone slipped into the spirit of the season amazed me. Some talked of missing home, but everyone loved the idea of celebrating Christmas in Turkey. So what if they missed a single year with their family? They had Christmases to spare.

It took me some time before I realized that I had slipped into the spirit of the season too. I was so busy helping out and eating and talking with everyone that at first I didn't notice I was actually having fun doing this stuff. Normally, putting up Christmas decorations was something I avoided, a part of the fake sense of fun my family desperately tried to project, and in the McLachlan home the kitchen was strictly off-limits, a jealously guarded sanctuary in which my mother hid from her relatives. In Göreme that year, no one had to fake a smile, and no one had to hide.

The day that I had hated all my life finally arrived. Preparations in the kitchen rose to a fever pitch. A group of backpackers went off to Göreme's telephone exchange to call home. I felt relieved when they didn't ask why I wasn't joining them. I stayed in the kitchen.

Once dinner was ready, the tables in the common room were heaped with food. Even a few chairs were drafted to serve as side tables. There was no turkey to be found in Turkey, but there was plenty of chicken, kebab, veggies, cakes and sweets, including more of those sugared chickpeas that had quickly become my Christmas favorite.

Everyone tucked in, sitting around a long table singing carols and feasting on a mix of European and Turkish treats. Though the carols were all the usual ones, I flubbed many of the lines -- the McLachlan family wasn't exactly the singing type – but everyone was singing so loudly, no one noticed.

Dawn's daughter brought over her friends, who all seemed mystified by the celebration, and of course the kids became the center of attention. Everyone played with them and gave them treats. When Dawn's brother showed up dressed as Santa Claus, they squealed with delight. Santa had a big sack and handed out the gifts we'd slipped him earlier. My Secret Santa got me a Cappadocia T-shirt, and my diary tells me Janine liked her hat. While I don't remember what that shirt looked like, or even what Janine looked like, I do remember that I enjoyed giving a gift as much as getting one.

The festivities continued late into the night. Beer and raki (an anise-flavored hard liquor) appeared, and the party got even livelier. The combination of a long day in the kitchen, stuffing myself with food and downing several glasses of raki eventually sent me to bed.

The next day I heard that some of the backpackers had headed off to a bar and that I had missed a fight between some of the locals. While that would have made a good travel story, I'm glad I didn't see it. For once, I'd experienced a Christmas free of negativity.

I'd discovered the spirit of Christmas, and was ready to celebrate it properly when I created my own family 10 years later.

An archaeologist and writer who caught the travel bug early on and still hasn't shaken it, Sean McLachlan is the author of numerous books including the historical novel "A Fine Likeness."

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