excerpts from an article by Arzu Öztürkmen

Childhood memory of most Turkish citizens is full of images of national holiday celebrations. Loudly recited heroic poems, enthusiastic folk dance performances, costume parades and shows, hasty and anxious teachers, or involuntary laughter during the long silent moments of commemoration, make up these images. Turkey recently celebrated the 75th year anniversary of the Republic, giving us an opportunity to rethink about these remembrances, as both collective and personal experiences, and with their political and social implications. Like in any other country where the state controlled the national education system, the structure of these celebrations had been well established and consolidated through the years, having “an accumulative effect upon successive generations” (Ben-Amos 1994:54). The formalism and the over-emphasized nationalism of the celebration programs, repeated over and over for years, created a sense of alienation in time.

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Looking at the history of national holidays, it is also important to note that the model for celebrations had its roots in the late Ottoman secular holidays, like the Young-Turks’ Hürriyet Bayramı, which in their turn, were borrowed from the European — and mostly French — forms of national celebrations. In the early Republican period, the People’s Houses became the central institutions where the form of the celebrations began to be consolidated. Later, the Tenth Anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Republic, was marked as one of the most dominant image of the “national holiday” celebration. Models survived, but the content of what was being celebrated, changed in time. Most often, it was the form of the celebration which persisted, remaining in continued use and within the bounds of the established tradition. In the context of Turkey, this continuity of formalism in the celebrations brought in time, the lessening of the enthusiasm of the early Republican years. The zeal of the 1930s survived perhaps until the 1950s. Through the process, the form of the celebrations was not reformed. The repetitive practice of this form which included sentimental poetry recitation, orderly but hard-to-adapt stadium performances, tiring costume parades and authoritarian style in the running of the programs, put a distance between the holidays and their participants. The forms of the celebrations became “passé,” out fashioned; thus, alienating the individuals to the real content of the holidays. If not solving it, this paper intends to problematize this “demystification,” with a historical framework that derived from both the written and oral sources.

National Holidays in Turkey: A Periodization

Turkey has four major national holidays. The range of possibilities from which these “great holidays” were chosen, is in fact, laid down in the historical narrative of Nutuk, Atatürk’s epic speech given in the National Parliament in 1927. According to Nutuk’s chronology, Atatürk lands in Samsun on 19 May 1919, which is celebrated today as the Atatürk’s Commemoration, Youth and Sports Day. On 23 April 1920, the Grand National Assembly (GNA) is opened; this is celebrated as the National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. On 30 August 1922, the Independence War ends; this makes the Victory Day. And finally, on 29 October 1923, the Republic is declared, which makes the Republic Day. Nutuk’s narrative naturally includes other landmark events, such as the Erzurum and Sivas Congresses, or important local battles of the Independence War. Nevertheless, only these four days are declared as “national holidays,” leaving the question of “why” as a curious matter for further research.
Following long years of national education, these days are registered in our collective memory, not as they appear in the chronological order of Nutuk’s narrative, but as they periodise the school calendar. To an ordinary student, teacher or director, this calendar is as follows: Schools open, and plans for the celebration of the 29th of October begin. As soon as this celebration ends, preparation is made for the 10th of November, Atatürk’s commemoration ceremonies. In the second term, preparations are made in row, first for the 23rd of April and then for the 19th of May ceremonies. Since the 30th of August falls outside the academic calendar, the Victory Day is often deprived of being part of the personal memories related to school, unless one is related to the Military School. Although it marks the final of the Independence War and was celebrated with great enthusiasm in the early years of the Republic, the Victory Day seems to have almost lost its former importance due to the periodization dominated by the schools’ calendar.

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“Performance within Performance:” Teachers’ Festival on the Children’s Day

With the closing of the People’s Houses, public schools assumed many of the performative traditions that the Houses established. The indoor holiday celebration format (i.e., colourful decoration, public speeches, recitations and other artistic performances) became a model for then developing national education system and its ceremonial performances. Of all the other holidays, the National Sovereignty and Children’s Day has always had a special place in the public eye. Shortly called as the “Children’s Day,” it marked the childhood imagery of “the Holiday!” In the words of one narrator, “the 23rd of April was like a Holiday of Flowers” (“Çiçek Bayramı gibi bir bayram”)! With the crepe paper and classrooms all decorated up, the Children’s Day was indeed the re-creation of a “Spring Holiday.” People’s Houses journals expressed similar feelings:

“Bu bayramın en canlı manasını, hiç bir kaygıya ruhunu kaptırmayan, renk renk giyinmiş, kelebekler gibi uçuşan çocukların neşelerinde bulduk…”

Many memories placed the imagery of the elementary school teachers, and mostly women, in the center of this enthusiasm. For the female teachers, more dressed up and groomed than usual, the 23rd of April was as much a holiday as it was for children, as these ceremonies formed — and still form — a ground for competition. They functioned to open doors of prestige and power for the schoolteachers, who would use this opportunity to be noticed by higher public officials.
The celebrations had a distinct importance for those who served in Anatolia. Teşrife Mersin, recalled a village celebration she organized in a Çorum village, where no Children’s Day was celebrated before. “Çocuklarla ilk 23 Nisanı o kadar güzel kutladım ki,” she remembered. Mersin mobilized parents for support, who produced the costumes, while she was writing the play. In her own words, “Eskiden bayramları kutlamak için bütün güç öğretmenlerdi.” The performance was shown during the day to mothers and at night to “fathers.” Another teacher would express a similar experience with a rather possessive tone:

“Ben de öğrencilerime gösteriler hazırlattım. Köylüler köy meydanına gelip benim küçük talebelerimi seyrederlerdi.”

In the eyes of a “young student,” however, the 23rd of April had other meanings than simply that of being a Children’s Day. For primary school children, this was a day where they concentrated on the personal relations they formed with the image of Atatürk:

“İlkokul sonuna kadar kafamızdaki Atatürk imajı şöyleydi: Atatürk insan olarak çok iyi. Aynen annemin beni sevmesi, babamın beni sevmesi gibi ülkesini, milletini seviyor… Yani Atatürk için çocuklar–günümüzdeki gibi içeriğinden yoksunlaşmış bir baba imajı değil–ama Atatürk’e gerçekten hayatın Türk ulusuna çok kötü günlerinde gönderdiği bir armağan insan–ama bu bir Noel Baba gibi şefkatli, ulusunu seven, onun için özveriden kaçınmayan–hatta gerçekten Noel Baba gibi hediye de veriyor, çünkü biz çocuk olarak ülkeyi onun hediye ettiğini düşünüyorduk…Bir kere okulun tatil edilmesi çocuk içgüdüsüyle bir sevinçti. Hocamızın çok şık ve bakımlı olduğu, yüzünün daha çok güldüğü; bizlerin bayram dolayısıyla özel giysilerle şık ve bakımlı olduğumuz ve erkenden kalktığımız bir gündü. Radyo da çok coşkulu… Büyük bir topluluğun parçası olduğumuzu hissettiğimiz… Çocuk olarak kendini yalnız hissetmiyorsun, ulusal bayramlarda. Düşün ki sen sırf çocuk olduğun için–23 Nisan için söylüyorum–Atatürk’ü de seviyorsun, zaten Atatürk sana bu bayramı vermiş ve Atatürk seni çok seven birisiymiş. Öyle ilginç bir şey ki, Atatürk’ün öldüğünü bildiğimiz halde onun ulusal bayramlarda yaşadığına inanıyorduk yani onun bizimle birçok şey paylaştığına inanıyorduk.”

In carefully examining the newspapers of the period, it becomes apparent that the 1933 Children’s Day celebrations were particularly important. This year, the program was pre-set by state authorities. State offices closed and schools were given a two-day holiday; airplanes flew over the city dropping leaflets containing maxims. In Istanbul, children met at Fatih Park and walked to Taksim, while in Ankara they gathered in the square near the Parliament building and continued in the official parade from there. In both cities, wreaths were placed in front of Atatürk’s statue; and plays prepared long before were performed in schools. An important holiday gift in Ankara was a special “film presentation” and a play put on in the People’s House. There was a special place, in those years’ celebrations, for the Himaye-i Etfal, the Children’s Protection Association. The Association’s flag decorated state office buildings and other institutions, and their large posters were hung from the Association ‘s centres in Galatasaray and Cağaloğlu. Undoubtedly, there was more to Himaye-i Etfal than simply promising “social affection” to the new generation it was raising. An important part of what it symbolized was precisely the transmission of what both the state and the nation expected from the “national child” raised with this very social affection.
The 23rd of April still holds the monopoly of the “childish enthusiasm,” when compared with all the other holidays. In this sense, because it has also assumed an international dimension since 1970s, the 23rd of April is the only national holiday, which was able to create a tradition of its own, and which continued to perform it.

Growing Up with Holidays: The 19th of May “Youth and Sports Day”

Very much close to the spirit of the Children’s Day was the “Youth Day,” celebrated on the 19th of May. Although the dominant concept was the “youth,” the full name of this holiday included other ideas, and it was called “Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day.” Some believed that both the Children’s Day and the Youth Day began to be celebrated with more importance, after the death of Atatürk. How these holidays came to be celebrated as primarily “children” or “youth” holidays undoubtedly requires further research. Still, the most basic common feature was that they both served as “rites of passages” in many ways. Taking into consideration their historical meanings, these holidays, symbolized on one hand, the moment of birth of the new regime, and on the other, served as a direct reference to two important periods of life, as childhood and youth. In addition, they also marked the transition from childhood to youth, in the students’ school life. One narrator expressed it by saying, “when we got to Junior High School, the 23rd of April became the 19th of May” (“Ortaokul gelince, 23 Nisan 19 Mayıs oldu”). In other words, participating in the 19th of May celebrations meant for most students that they had grown up, that they have come of age.
The written sources marked the 20th Anniversary of the 19th of May, as a landmark celebration of that holiday. The Anniversary was held in Samsun, where Atatürk started the Independence War in 1919. As the beginning of the national history narrative, this day was usually stored in every Turkish student’s memory with a strong visuality: Atatürk leaving the Imperial Capital Istanbul, to sail into the stormy Black Sea with the old Bandırma ship, and to land to Samsun on a May 19th morning, for a new future for his people! In 1939, this day was enacted in an open-air drama, as part of the ceremony program. People of Samsun filled the coast and streets from early morning on; and officials gathered at the Gazi Wharf, while a row of motorboats was waiting offshore. At 9:30 am these motorboats began moving towards the coast from the sea. Just as they were doing this, the ships docked in the port, the locomotives at the station, and the factory whistles began to blow while the clock tower began to chime. In the largest motorboat, a platoon soldier was carrying a portrait of Atatürk, accompanied by a twenty-one-gun salute. Meanwhile, on the wharf, a stretched out “black curtain” was being torn and pulled away by an officer getting out of the boat. While pairs of people from schools and sports organizations holding pictures of Atatürk moved towards Samsun’s famous statue of Atatürk, the governor, commander and mayor followed from behind. After the National Anthem was played, there were three minutes of silence, followed by public speeches, and a parade of soldiers and students. In the afternoon, a sports festival was held in the Republic Square; while in the evening, folk dances expressed as “köylülerin milli oyunları” and lantern processions were watched.
Another dimension of the 19th of May celebrations that was different from other holidays was that it was a holiday strongly felt at the street level. In the early days of the Republic, the 19th of May celebrations were remembered as a time of street parades, when young people flowed into the different parts of the town, after the ceremonies. After the 1950s, however, these celebrations were transformed into “holidays in stadium.” Here, the tradition of parades still continued, although limited to the shows of the military and police forces along with schools’ performances. The emphasis was more on the visual effects created by acrobatic and sportive shows, along with mass folk dancing and other rhythmic performances.

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The history of the national holiday celebrations during the Republican period showed us the need to search for the reasons when and how these holidays lost their early zeal. If the form of the celebrations had become an established tradition, when did the bonds that used to bring the masses together loosen? Perhaps, exposed to four national holidays per year (and many other national days) in repetitive ceremonies over the years, the public had excessively consumed these celebrations, and began to look at them with indifference. Enthusiasm of earlier days of the Republic loosened in time, and their joy disappeared. Or perhaps, was it the “partisanship” which influenced the way in which these holidays were celebrated? We see references made in some narratives to the feeling of social division created by the 1960 coup. Did the army, which had an important place in holiday celebrations, experience a kind of demystification along with the coup? Or was it the changing form of national holiday celebrations which affected the public’s attitude. Beginning by the fifties, these holidays were brought from the street level into the stadiums, and from there, they entered our homes through television. With the1980 military coup, the stadium performances had also changed, “modernized” for some, with picture-panels formed from the audience seats. Following the municipality elections in 1994, new forms of celebrations emerged to redefine these holidays. Holidays, this time, came down to the Squares, trying to become “enjoyable” again, with public rock concerts, street decorations, or free exhibitions. With the boom of private school system, new indoor celebrational forms also began to be invented, using better staging and dramatic techniques.

Öztürkmen, Arzu “Celebrating National Holidays in Turkey: History and Memory,” New Perspectives on Turkey, Fall 2001, no. 25, pp.47-75.

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