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Forgotten Ottoman Eid traditions make comeback in Turkey

Although Turks cannot agree on the name of the holiday, all agree to keep Ramadan traditions alive in modern times.
People listen to the Mehter band performing Ottoman army music as they wait for Iftar, the evening meal for breaking fast during Ramadan, on the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Istanbul August 1, 2011. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY) - RTR2PJ59

At the end of fasting for 30 days, Muslims everywhere enjoy Eid al-Fitr, the Arabic name for the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. Turks use the word Bayram, instead of Eid, to mean feast and celebration. The disputes within Turkish society are numerous. First, what is the proper name of the celebration? Conservatives insist on referring to it as Ramadan Feast, while seculars opt for Candy Feast, arguing that the month of Ramadan is over. Then there is the dispute about what day Ramadan ends, or celebrations start, all around the Muslim world, following the debate about the starting day of Ramadan.

In Turkey, most people follow what the Religious Affairs Directorate suggests. This year, to boost tourism, the government extended the holiday to nine days. The first day of Eid was announced as July 5. Based on the lunar year, Ramadan moves 10 days forward every year. Therefore, it is not set to a specific season, so it is difficult to identify certain tastes and decors with Eid celebrations in the Muslim world.

That said, there are several customs and traditions that have lived through the ages. First is cleanliness. About a week before Eid, it is tradition to deep clean your home. This cleaning is followed by shopping for new clothes, accessories and gifts for the celebration. On the first morning of Eid, it is tradition to wear new clothes and shoes, especially for young kids. In almost all neighborhoods, the street markets are busy during the last week of Ramadan.

Another trend that is making a comeback is enjoying a Bayram Hamami — a special session at a Turkish bath with friends. This practice has gained popularity in the last decade, and all upscale hamams (Turkish baths) offer special deals and packages for the holiday.

After cleaning the house and yourself and buying new clothes and shoes, the next important tradition is visiting the graves of family members. Most people prefer to visit their late relatives on the last day of Ramadan. It is also the day most observant Turks prepare and distribute their alms and donations, called zakat al-fitr. The amount is calculated according to one’s yearly income level. Once the family determines how much they will donate, they decide how to distribute the alms. It is required that the money or precious goods be donated before sunrise on Eid. In Turkey, most people give alms throughout the last week of Ramadan to help those in need enjoy their Eid as well. It is customary to donate discreetly to protect the dignity of the recipients.

Like any other festivity, Eid celebrations require a lot of food preparation. Families throw lavish lunch and dinner parties for relatives and friends. Then it is traditionally little plates of sweet and savory pastries offered with juice, tea or coffee.

Homemade baklava is the most prized signature offering of several households. Even though it is easy to purchase fresh baklava in almost every town in Turkey nowadays, during Eid celebrations most households expect their own mom’s or auntie’s famous homemade baklava. Most local bakeries work overtime on the last day of Ramadan cooking the homemade baklava for their customers over wood flames. Most of them do not charge a fee for this service from their regular customers. In return, once the baklava is prepared, it is customary for the household to give a small plate to the baker. Indeed, in the southeastern provinces, such as Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, local bakeries take trays throughout the year from their neighbors to bake. Given the record heat in the region this year, their suffering has made the news.

Now that the household is ready for festivities, the first morning of Eid is the most important. In most households, the men attend morning prayers at the mosque. Then they come home to find a lavish breakfast prepared. It is also customary to eat either dates or some sweets before attending the prayers. For many households, this is the first breakfast served after sunrise in the last 30 days. The younger people in the household — sons, daughters, grandkids — traditionally kiss the hand of the elders, as the elders present them with a gift. The gifts are usually money or gold coins wrapped in handkerchiefs. This tradition was becoming obsolete until a prominent fashion brand recently designed Eid handkerchiefs with pockets deep enough to stash cash or gift certificates and with colorful envelopes and individualized messages. The brand has become quite popular with the slogan “Wherever you are, that is where Eid is celebrated” and its envelopes have messages such as “To My Pretty Daughter” and “To My Precious Nephew.”

It is also customary to get packaged candy. Depending on one’s budget, the candy ranges from just colorfully wrapped candy to delicate gourmet chocolate or Turkish delight. These trays are offered to guests who visit as well as to neighborhood children who run from door to door expecting candy or cash. In addition, Ramadan’s famous drummers visit neighborhoods in the morning. It is customary for the residents of the street to tip the drummer for his service throughout the month.

The three days of celebration are organized in a hierarchical manner. The first day is reserved for family members. It is tradition for the younger ones to visit and pay respect to the elders. Then more distant family and neighbors must be visited. This is a time for hugs and kisses in Turkey. It is also a time for broken hearts to be mended. If there are people who have had an argument, Eid is considered a time to make peace.

Although there are no longer traveling puppeteers, modern-day cities provide entertainment parks. If it is summer, kids go to water parks and enjoy carnival rides along with candy and gifts from relatives and neighbors.

Another almost forgotten tradition is the serving of homemade fruit liquors to visitors. During Ramadan most taverns are closed. So festivities in usually secular households would include serving of cherry or mint liquor shots to the guests to celebrate. Most conservatives do not approve of this tradition. A prominent tavern owner from Istanbul, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor, “Another century’s long tradition is for us tavern owners to send trays of seafood to the homes of regular customers on the first day of Eid. Eid festivities are important to us because we take the month of Ramadan off, so with Eid, we reopen. Our customers enjoy the tray of seafood during the holiday, then they will bring back the empty tray and this will be an excuse for them to enter back our tavern. Whatever happens, we are part of this society, and I honor the traditions of my grandfathers.”

Indeed, this is the core of contemporary Eid celebrations. We almost always reminiscence about the old days, steeping ourselves in the joyful moments of our memories. The tastes, scents and images remind us of the happiness we once had. It is the meticulous effort we take to share a pleasant moment for our loved ones. That is precisely why the traditions of Anatolian festivities travel well all around the world.