An Expat Christmas in Turkey – Part Three

I got a little sidetracked from my Dylan Thomas theme here but I wanted to write about the carol service at Maryem Ana because I think it is so special, so it forms part 3 of my Expat Christmas in Turkey.

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It is the shortest day and Christmas collides with Yule and old traditions and ancient rites march hand in hand with modern myth into the magic of the solstice night.

Appropriately we go to The House of the Virgin Mary for the Christmas Carol service. Through the narrow streets leading from the village to the dark swooping road past the ruins of Ephesus, climbing up through the forests, going back through the centuries, to the simple stone chapel on the flanks of the mountains where the first born Christians had their sanctuary and Mary mourned her son, long before they made him the son of God.

We meet at the entrance to the chapel grounds, a small group, under the bemused eyes of the Jandarma that guard the site. Song sheets are handed out and there are sighs of relief that these are familiar carols, old favourites, and there are whispers of “oh I love that one” and “Hark the Herald!” and from me “Once in Royal David’s City – that’s my Dad’s favourite!”

Father Palo is a dark and happy blur in the night, a shape of cheer and enthusiasm with a bright flame of vocation in his voice, “Come, come, let’s sing” and by lantern glow and torch beam path he leads as towards the chapel. Over flagstone paths beneath the silver shiver of olive trees in winter, with a full moon rising through cloud above the mountain top, singing we make our way through time and tradition, stepping softly through the night.

To the Chapel garlanded with bright fruited branches from the strawberry tree woven with holly sprigs dripping hips and haws of red. Yule and Christmas, celyn and holly, all through the years, warding off evil from this house.

We shuffle inside and arrange ourselves, on stools and benches, shoulder to shoulder in this small stone chapel with its roseate arches profiled with boughs of greenery and red. And we sing. The songs from my childhood, from the years when I sat with legs dangling in the front row at mass, shepherded by Sisters, silent and awed at the rise and run of beautiful soaring triumphant carolling.

And it makes me feel like it always does, lost in time, whirled away through the years, still a Catholic child hiding shaking hands in the pulpit, thoroughly rehearsed and clear voiced as I read for the first time in public “and it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus….” My parents in the congregation, Sister Francis mouthing the words in time to mine, bow to Canon Cashman, bow to the tabernacle, don’t fall down the steps!

Time is elastic here, compounded by Christmas and song and flickering candle light the years of my life paint images amongst the small congregation. A shadow of my grandmother stands for the prayers, wearing her good winter coat, hands clutching her missal. Then we pray for the dear departed and the tears start leaking as they always do, and I hope he is safe and loved where ever he is, that a bright light guided him home.

Nick hands me a handkerchief to mop up the dribbling tears and David turns and smiles at me and launches loudly and confidently into “Oh come all yea faithful”, and I smile for the memory and the joy of it, the familiar words that feel friendly in my mouth, the tempo that has been drummed into my blood, the cadences that are now undoubtedly part of my DNA, an immortal coil of carolling.

Too soon it is done and we file out past the sweetest, most beautiful, nativity scene, where a plump baby Jesus is surrounded by animals and angels, magi and men, lying in his manger lit by twinkling fairy lights. Out into the warm Aegean night we go, to light tapers that flame in the wind that blows from the sea, mixing hot wax with the scent of salt and pine.

We return home to my honey stone house to citrus sharp, sugar soothed mulled wine and the soba pinging hot in the fireplace, to a late night snack of rich duck pate spread on thick cut village bread and sticky granulated chunks of home made fudge and rich chocolate truffles flavoured with almond oil.

We feel peaceful and calm, laved by a balm of the familiar, warmed by our traditions and in harmony with the season. We are thousands of miles from home; we sing songs scant centuries old in a place that measures prayers in eons; but how very, very right it felt – çok Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Candles burning outside Maryem Ana after Christmas Carol service