It seems to me there was a time when everyone I knew celebrated Christmas with eternally fixed beliefs, customs and menus - but that was back in the days before cultural diversity became the norm. The few non-Christians in my circle then generally kept a low profile as the party rumbled on without them. Lately, however, their number has grown, swollen by ranks of atheists, agnostics and vegetarians - all bent on questioning the basis, abjuring the symbolism and rejecting the customary festive fare - while still taking advantage of a few days of sanctioned idleness and self-indulgence. In order to take a step back from this cultural confusion I decided to spend this Christmas in Istanbul.
In a city so used to visitors and with a population estimated at 15 million there was bound to be some recognition of the great Western knees-up - decorated trees in hotel lobbies and inflatable Santas in a few of the shops - but really it was business as usual even though there appeared to be very few tourists rattling around the extensive infrastructure dedicated to serving them. Streets full of shops, cafes, restaurants and stalls were open but bereft of customers, their owners prowling the pavements, relentlessly entreating us with their impressive multi-lingual pitches. I had hoped to blend anonymously into the general population so as to experience the subtle everyday pleasures of being in the city but I underestimated the power of small differences to betray my identity and, despite my attempt to avoid dressing as a tourist, the natives instantly recognised me as a foreigner and homed in remorselessly. My polished leather shoes, especially, were an obvious target for the hundreds of shoe-shine boys. I soon learned to avoid eye-contact with them.
But the most precious thing that Istanbul possesses, its history, needs no selling. It is a product of its location and is everywhere evident in its buildings, its customs and its activities - none of which can be fully appreciated without some rudimentary knowledge of events from the time Constantinople was founded as a Christian city-state in 330 AD, through the time it fell to Islamic forces in 1453, subsequently becoming known as Istanbul, and to the creation of the secular state of Turkey in 1928. All of this story is to be found within the city and is there to inform our view of modern world events. And, while I may have eschewed the outward appearance of a tourist, I did fully embrace the historical sightseeing opportunities, picking off the monuments one by one.
But, while I never became blasé about the quantity and quality of the sites, I did soon begin to suffer a growing sense of outrage at their very existence. It started in the Harem of the Topkapi Palace when my admiration for the architectural and decorative skills of the builders gave way to consideration of the purpose for which the place existed - a gilded prison where people were enslaved for the personal pleasure of its creators, the Sultans. Even in the lavish sacred buildings, the churches and mosques, I experienced a similar revulsion at the way in which the established authorities used them to justify their position and control their subjects with the collusion of organised religion and its ability to subjugate the minds of men.
But my spirits were lifted at the last stop, the Basilica Cistern, a great underground reservoir built by the Emperor Justinian around 550 AD to supply fresh water to the citizens. The astonishing magnificence of the work and its antiquity make it a classic example of Roman engineering but what I most admired was that it was a civil engineering project and, as such, was of material benefit to the otherwise deprived population.
Suitably cheered I emerged into the cold, sunlit square and made straight for the nearest shoe-shine boy. I overpaid him with a generosity born of empathy for the oppressed people of the last two millennia, then pointed my gleaming feet in the direction of the airport and contemplated the fleeting time-span of the Christmas pudding.