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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

MEMOIRS OF A CHRISTMAS AWAY: TWO STORIES ABOUT MY FIRST CHRISTMAS IN GREECE

CHRISTMAS WITHOUT SANTA CLAUS

Celebrating Christmas the Traditional Greek Way

This story was written in 1983, the first time in my life I'd ever spent Christmas away from my family. I had just moved to Greece and was getting accustomed to the Greek traditions and way of life, which was quite different from my own, brought up in a Welsh/English family with our own traditions. It was an unusual and sometimes lonely Christmas that year. But I treasure the memory of it and now that I look back, I realize how much I learned -- one thing, how much I missed my family at Christmas, the events at our church, the family dinners and gift-giving. And most of all, Santa Claus!
***photo: Aghios Vassilis greets the children at the Zappeion Gardens.

DECEMBER IN ATHENS
In the shops around Omonia and Kolonaki Squares there isn't a sign of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman or Santa's Helpers. On the streets the familiar bell-ringers with their red money pots for charity and the sound of recorded Noel carols is missing. Most of the window displays don't have festive decorations. Up on busy Patission Street, the big Minion Department Store has a mechanical children's display, a few plastic Santas and some small ornamental trees with tiny coloured
lights/ There is a big Christmas tree decorated with lights and bright cardboard packages in Syntagma Square. Although some of the main streets are strung with little bulbs, there isn't a sign of Christmas tree lights twinkling from apartment windows. And chances are, on Christmas Day, Santa won't find any stockings hung for him to fill. This is Greece, and except for those who have adopted the wetern customs of celebrating the Yule season, the traditions are different here.

For most of the western world, Christams is the central festival of the year. In Greece, Easter is of greater importance. Perhaps the long northern winters produce a need for a midwinter festival in the rest of Europe and in North America. Greece is farther south and the real celebration is the coming of spring. There may be pageantry and feasting here at Christams, but there is none of the pre-Christmas "hype" that is experienced in the western world.

GREEK CHRISTMAS
For those Greeks who religiously observe the Orthodox festivals, a short lent, The Fast of the Nativity, begins this season on November 17th and ends on Chrsitmas Eve. The Presentation of the Virgin Mary, on November 31st is the most improtant feast day, especaially for the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.

St. Nicholas isn't the Greek Santa Claus; he is the patron saint of seamen. On December 8ty the little churcheson the Greek Islands celebrate his day with the blessing of the "koliva" a wheat dish made to honour the dead. This is taken on voyages to be thrown into the sea to calm stormy waters.

When the short lent "Makree Sarakostis" ends on Christmas Eve, the Christmas bread, cakes and cookies are baked. These will be given to the children who come to sing the "Kalanda", the Greek carollers. Except in homes where famlies celebrate in the western custom, the stockings are not hung on the chimney with care. Gifts are usually not exchanged until New Year's Day. In the morning, to the greeting of "Kala Christouyenna: Merry Christmas" the family and often a visiting priest sit down to a traditional feast. The table is set with delicious Greek foods and sweets: roast turkey or boar's head soup with lentils, and sometimes a dish of white beans in memory of the dead. Of course there is wine, "retsina" and ouzo, but the most important feature of the day is the proportioning of the Christmas bread.

NEW YEAR'S EVE
The real celebration begins on New Year's Eve. It is a social evning when men play cards and gamble the night away and the children and families visit other homes to sing the Kalandas. As they stop at nearby homes, the children sing their carols accompanied by the chiming of little silver triangles. Their favorite song is about Aghios Vassilis (St. Basil). The children chang that St. Basil is coming, bringing paper and quill pens. It is St. Basil, not St Nicholas who is the Santa Claus of Greece. St. Bail was one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was famous as an educator and buildger of hospitals and homes for the sick and friendless. The children singing about the benevolent saint are rewarded with money and sweets.

On New Year's Eve, as the bells chime in the new year, the head of the house slices a special traditional loaf of bread. In this ceremony, the finder of the coin buried in the bread will be blessed with good fortune. On New Year's Day gifts are exchanged and the family sits down to a banquet more sumptuous than the Christmas feast: the more abundant, the better the prospects of the comin gyear. Wine glasses are clinked in the traditional toasts - agreeting common the world over:
Eftikhismenos oh Kaynooyio Kronos! HAPPY NEW YEAR!"
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