Monday, December 27, 2010

Weekly Hurriyet Column: How the Turk stole Christmas

Below is the unedited version of my column for this week. You can read the final version at the Daily News website, but since I have been editing my columns myself on the Daily News media webeditor since March, you won't see much of a difference between the two. As for the title, I guess it is quite obvious this time around...

As for an addendum, I don't have any real extra info., but have two very important announcements, which I posted at the comments section of the column as well. First, the undercover economist is Tim Harford, not Tim HarTford. I always misspell his name because I did my undergrad. in Connecticut in the U.S., whose capital is Hartford. But sincere apologies to Tim, who is one of my favorite FT columnists.

I also got a couple of email questions on the robustness of my methodology, so a disclaimer is in order: There is definitely more work needed to confirm my quick & dirty take. In that sense, I hope that a real academic, not a knockoff one like your favorite Turkey economist, like my friend Liran or someone else reading this column, will apply a more rigorous methodology- similar to Liran & co.'s paper. The appropriate way to do this would be with a survey or with actual Bayram spending patterns- as more mentions in a newspaper could mean several things. But for now, it does seem, based on my back of the envelope calculations, that there is indeed a "competition effect" going on. And by the way, I did all my comparisons with the previous and following years; comparing mentions in 2000 with 2010 would not make sense because of the way the paper's structure and internet browsing patterns have changed... You could of course include all kinds of time dummies, but I am not sure a regression is the way to with only ten years of data:)....

Anyway, without more delay, on to the column:

Although I am not tired of writing about Turkish monetary policy, I suspect some of my readers could be sick of reading about it, given the attention it has been getting in the papers.

Therefore, while I am referring the interested reader to my blog for the Central Bank’s rabbit-pulling during the past week, I would like to talk about a topic more suited to the spirit of the holidays: How Turks stole Christmas.

Of course, Turks did not really steal Christmas; they just tweaked it around a bit and combined it with New Year’s so that Saint Nick, the presents and the pine tree, the whole nine yards, have all been nearly integrated into New Year’s, which is conveniently close in the calendar.

The integration is so perfect that even your friendly neighborhood economist never fully understood the difference between the two during his secondary school studies at Robert College, an American high school in Istanbul with quite a bit of Christian teachers, until he went on to study in the United States.

While Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review’s Editor-in-Chief David Judson neatly summarizes the Turkification of Christmas, along with a sweet story, in his latest Southbound, he does not attempt to answer the more interesting questions such as how and why.

The answers to those questions would have been easier if New Year’s had to compete with Christmas. In a recent paper first brought to my attention by the Financial Times’ Undercover Economist Tim Hartford, three economists, one of whom happens to be an old classmate, found that Jews living in the U.S. give more prominence to Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday usually celebrated in December, than Israelis.

There is also an intra-country effect: In the U.S., the effect is stronger in Jewish American families living in Gentile neighborhoods and sending their children to Christian schools. Interestingly enough, families with children under 18 celebrate Hanukkah more strongly, hinting that parents are, in Tim Hartford’s words, simply “compelled to fight fire with fire” by creating a substitute Christmas.

Coming back to Turkey, it is plausible that the globalization of Christmas, as part of the globalization of the culture of the only superpower, has made it necessary for everyone to find a surrogate Christmas in a holiday nearby on the calendar. In other words, if my friend Liran & co. were to widen to scope of their study, they would find a Yuletide effect in most holidays close to Christmas.

But whatever the reason for it, the ingenious Turkish solution allows us to test if there is indeed a “competition effect” in Turkey. Despite the careful disguise, New Year’s is a secular holiday not celebrated as much by pious, conservative Turks. Therefore, it would be interesting to see how the Muslim holidays would compete with the Turkish hybrid Christmas-New Year’s.

The moving nature of the Ramadan and Kurban bayram holidays has allowed me to conduct a simple time series analysis, motivated by the budding science of culturomics. Using the online archives of the Daily News’ godfather Hürriyet, I found a surge in words related to the Kurban holiday in 2007, which showed up both right before and after New Year’s that year. There is also a very strong Ramadan effect in 2000, when the holiday was just a couple of days before New Year’s.

And if you are wondering, I am in this for pure curiosity. I personally prefer Festivus, a holiday for the rest of us. But still, a belated Merry Christmas & Hanukkah, as well as an early Happy New Year to everyone from your favorite Turkish economist.

I know it sounds even cheesier than my cheesy movie-homage titles, but I am going to say it anyway: See you next year!

* Emre Deliveli is a freelance consultant and columnist for Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review and Forbes as well as a contributor to Roubini Global Economics. Read his economics blog at

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