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Thursday, December 27, 2007


"A guid New Year to ane an' a' and mony may ye see."
Traditional Scottish New Year's toast.


December 31, the final day of the Gregorian year and the day before New Year’s Day, is also called Hogmanay (in Scotland) and Sylvester (in Germany, Israel, Hungary and Poland.) In the 21st century western practice, New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with parties and social gatherings. Many countries use fireworks and other forms of noise making to welcome in the new year. Some countries have odd traditions associated with this eve.

In Brazil music shows are held, most famously at the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro and in Sao Paulo they hold the Saint Sylvester Marathon, contested by athletes from all over the world. The Danes celebrate with family gatherings and feasts. In Ecuador they have elaborate effigies called Anos Viejos (Old Years) created to represent people and events from the past year. These are often stuffed with firecrackers. One popular tradition is the wearing of yellow panties, said to attract positive energy for the new year.

The French celebrate with a feast called Le Reveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre. In Berliin Germany, a huge display of fireworks is ignited at the Brandenburg Gate. There’s also fireworks in Hong Kong and in Japan the Buddhist temple bells are rung 108 times. Mexicans down a grape for each of the 12 chimes of the church bells and people who want to find love in the New Year wear red underwear (yellow for money)

Auckland, New Zealand is the first major city to see the beginning of the new year as it’s 496.3 kilometres west of the International Date Line. The Filipinos celebrate with a dinner party called Media Noches. They have a custom of wearing clothes with a circular pattern, like polka dots, to attract money and fortune.

In Spain families celebrate with a special dinner of shrimp, lamb or turkey and also wear red underwear for luck, and eat the 12 grapes synonymous with the new year. In Turkey homes are lit up and decorated with garlands and public celebrations are held. In Greece, while the adults gamble at card games, the children go around ringing little triangles while they sing kalendalas (carols) as this is the night that Agio Vassilis (St Basil) comes with gifts for them.

In the U.K. Big Ben strikes the midnight hour as the crowds count down the chimes to the hour. In London the London Eye is the centre of a 10 minute fireworks display illuminated with coloured lasers. In Scotland, the traditional son Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns, is sung and street parties are held. In the States the Bell Drop at Times Square in New York is broadcast through America and Canada.

I have both fond and melancholy memories of New Year’s Eves. In the old times it was one of the most anticipated holidays next to Christmas. You always had a new outfit to wear which was planned well in advance, something fashionable and spectacular to wear to the celebration which was often held in a night club or at a gala house party. I’ll never forget the year I’d made a gorgeous gold pois de sois two-piece dress. I looked fantastic. But when I arrived at the big party with several other couples, I was chagrined to find that another woman in the group was wearing a dress of similar style and material. I was crushed, but of course I had made mine myself so considered it to be more ‘original’.

I recall one New Year’s Eve when I was in my late teens, my girlfriend and I had been invited out by two American sailors to attend a show at a supper club. My girlfriend had a new dress but hadn’t time to hem it so she’d pinned the hem up with straight pins and all night long the pines scraped her legs until they were bleeding. After the show at the nightclub, we tottered over to the Catholic cathedral for midnight mass. I was in charge of holding the bottle of wine in a brown paper bag under my coat and I distinctly recall dropping it in the back pew!

Yes, New Year’s Eve was always a night of wild abandon and over-drinking. At clubs or house parties, when it turned midnight, traditionally you are supposed to kiss your partner or date under the mistletoe or wherever you happen to be, but all too often I’d find myself alone in a crowd of strangers while my significant other was off in a corner kissing someone else. I soon grew weary of these episodes. new Years eve began to lose it’s romantic appeal, and instead it became a lonely time, especially once I was single. Eventually, I decided I’d rather stay home alone, so I’d bring in some goodies: the makings for Welsh rarebit, oysters to fry, a few bottles of McEwan’s ale and a bottle of Heinken Trokel wine. I’d mention to a few close friends that I was staying home that night, and wait to see who’d show up. Usually a couple of friends would drop by to share the celebration with me. But one of my most memorable New Year’s Eves was one I spent all alone enjoying my own company, dancing to my favourite music.

I’ve had New Year’s Eves abroad, far from family and close friends, and these turned out to be fun in their uniqueness. I recall my first New Year’s Eve in Greece (which turned into one of my most memorable). My room-mate and I decided to go to the fabulous Intercontinental Hotel piano bar to spend the evening. On the way, we stopped by a pizzeria to have a bite to eat. I made a spectacular entrance by almost walking through the glass door which I didn’t realize was closed, and I got a standing ovation from a troop of merry Quantas Airlines flight attendants who were partying there. We ended up joining then for one of the craziest, most fun New Year’s Eves ever. And I even won the New Year’s prize -- a nice boyfriend who was around as long as Quantas flew into Athens every two or three weeks.

Nowadays on New Years, I will make plans to go out if friends are going along and the price is right. Being with close friends, dancing and dining, is quite a satisfying way to end the old year. Although it’s no longer the ‘romantic’ exciting night it used to be, it’s worth a little celebrating. This year I’ll go with my girlfriends to enjoy an evening of the Blues at the bistro where my son plays. I wonder if I should wear the red or the yellow undies?


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Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Barry the Irish Troubadour


Christmas in 1983 was the first time I had ever spent Christmas away from my family. I couldn’t have been any farther away from Vancouver than Athens, Greece. It looked as though it would be a dismal time.

I had been living in Athens since October and shared a two-bedroom sparsely furnished flat with another woman. My room-mate’s ill-humour didn’t add to my mood as I faced the holiday season. I had met Connie the year before when we were both tourists in Greece, attracted by her sense of humour which she had somehow lost during the months we shared our apartment and struggled to adjust to life in Athens. We both worked as E.S.L. teachers. What money we earned bought the barest necessities for our flat. I used an upturned drawer to put my typewriter on and bashed out travel stories for newspapers at home. After what we were accustomed to at homelife in Athens was bleak.

I made friends with two Irish men, Donald and Barry, who made their living busking on the metro enchanting the Greeks with their Irish songs. They were homeless, and as we had an empty salon, I invited them to stay with us. Donald and Barry became my saviours, cheering me with their Irish humour and lively music.

As Christmas drew near I searched for festive signs around town. Greeks don’t celebrate Christmas the way we did at home. There were few decorations and in the store windows no sign of Santa Claus, Rudolph or Frosty. A large tree with lights was erected in Syntagma Square, but I missed the cheery sound of Salvation Army bell-ringers and carolers.

I went to the street market where the gypsies sold holly, pine branches and flowers and bought a little laurel bush with shiny green leaves and little wax-like red apples spiked on the ends of the branches. I put it in a flower pot and hung gold garlands on it with three red paper birds for ornaments and a string of tiny coloured lights. Soon parcels arrived in the mail and I placed them underneath.

My room-mate’s Greek boyfriend, was opening a bar on Christmas Eve in the town of Chalkis on the island of Euboeia and he hired Donald and Barry to play there.
The cozy little pub was located near the sea. The opening night was disappointing as very few customers came. There certainly wasn’t a festive spirit. We felt abandoned by our host, especially Connie who spent the night pouting.
On Christmas day, we went for a stroll along the waterfront. As we walked, Barry played his guitar. Some seamen called us over so Barry and Donald sang Irish songs for them, and we all joined in singing Christmas carols. We found a little crèche with models of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus surrounded by live goats and sheep. On our way back to the taverna, we stopped for a meal. The closest thing to turkey we could find was chicken, but it would have to do. At least it was beginning to feel a lot more like Christmas.

Christmas creche, Chalkis, Christmas 1983

That night we sat alone in the empty taverna and reminisced about Christmas at home, describing in detail the turkey dinners we remembered from past Christmas. We imagined the feast our families would be eating that Christmas day, savouring every vicarious mouth-full: the succulent turkey meat, the spicy stuffing, the cranberry jelly, the candied yams, mashed potatoes swimming in gravy, the variety of fresh vegetables and best of all, the delicious aromas that went with the food. We imagined the steaming plum pudding smothered in hot rum sauce, and how we would get the piece with money wrapped up inside. We felt comfort in each other’s company. We were a ‘family’. Because of Donald and Barry, Christmas became special after all, even though we were all so far away from home.

Barry and Donald sing Christmas carols on the dock, Chalkis, Euboeia, Greece
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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.

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.

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.

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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