December 31, 2010

Yes, Virginia, Hellenes Have Christmas Traditions

Athena Andreadis
December 30, 2010
The Huffington Post

Two decades ago, Ann Landers did a column about how various cultures celebrate Christmas. Halfway down her list was this gem: "If you are Greek Orthodox, your sect celebrates Christmas on January 7." Several people wrote back that 1) the Orthodox church is not a sect -- it is the original church from which the Catholic one split after the Schism of 1054 and 2) only the so-called Old Believers track Christmas by the Julian calendar.

I was reminded of this when I was leaving work a week ago, and a colleague asked, "Should I wish you Merry Christmas? I heard you Greeks don't celebrate it like we do." As those who read my posts know, I'm an atheist who misses many of my culture's old customs, particularly those that thrum with pagan echoes. So I'm going to put my tour guide's hat briefly on, and tell you what we Hellenes do around the time of the winter solstice.

The holiday lasts two weeks, from December 25 to January 6. At the three punctuation points (Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany) children make the rounds of the neighborhood houses, singing songs called kálanda. These remain unchanged from the Byzantine era; they're different for each of the three days and the kids sing them to the accompaniment of hand-held metal triangles -- and more rarely, small bodhrán drums. During these two weeks, people thought that mischievous spirits (kallikántzaroi) prowled the dark. These obvious descendants of fauns and satyrs take a solstice break from trying to cut down the world tree that holds up the earth. During the interruption the tree heals, leading to infinite annual repetitions.

People decorate their homes and start the feast preparations on Christmas Eve -- and the original focus of the activities was not a pine or fir tree (a recent import from Northern Europe) but a small ship. After all, we were seafarers even before Iáson sailed Arghó to the Sea of Azov in search of the Golden Fleece. The main dishes vary regionally, but ham is not on the list. Piglet, kid and lamb on the spit are, as is hen stuffed with chestnuts and raisins -- turkey is too bland for Hellenic palates. The ubiquitous sweets are finger-sized melomakárona (honey macaroons) and kourabiédhes (butter almond cookies).

On December 31, families gather for the countdown, nibbling finger food -- and at midnight, the ship horns can be heard from harbors and seashores, ushering in the new year. Presents are put under the ship or tree when it is decorated but they get opened on January 1, either right after midnight strikes or in the morning. The gifts are not brought by Santa Claus (Nicholas) who in the Hellenic hagiology is the patron saint of sailors. Our giftbearer is Saint Basil, based on a real person: Vasílios the Great Hierarch, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in the 4th century. From a wealthy and influential family, he took time between arguments about dogma to succor the poor and needy, spending his entire inheritance on charity.

On the night of December 31, a candle is left burning next to a goblet of wine and a small plate that holds a golden coin (flourí). On New Year's Day the coin, presumably touched by Saint Vasílios, is baked into a rich bread pudding (vasilópita), which is later cut into named sections. Whoever gets the coin will have an exceptionally good year. On the same day, the youngest child of the family is the first to walk through the front door for good luck -- often bearing a just-budding wild onion bulb, or cracking open a pomegranate... old, old symbols of wealth and fertility from the time when the virgins giving birth were called Isis, Astarte, Pótnia.

Epiphany, which rounds out the holiday, is also called The Lights. On that day the priests go to each house, blessing it with a sprig of basil dipped in water. Afterward, the priests from every coastal city, town or village throw a cross into the sea. Young men dive to retrieve it, and whoever brings it back is blessed. Just so did priests and priestesses of other religions also appease the oldest goddess of all -- Tiamat, Thálassa -- by offering her rings and other treasure instead of crosses. The custom was retained by the Doges of Venice, the city state that owed its existence to the sea.

A few years ago Mr. Snacho and I found ourselves in Tarpon Springs, Florida, at the turn of the year. The city was founded by sponge divers from the island of Kálymnos. They still throw the cross into the sea. Young men still compete for the honor of retrieving it. And I, an exile by choice who's often homesick for the place I left almost forty years ago, wept at the sight.