Friday, January 3, 2014

Christmas in Greece: Festivities, Feasts, Fires, and Fears

Leading up to Christmas in Greece, a mild season this year in Crete and Athens, poinsettia trees and cyclamen flowers bloom, community groups organize charity bazaars, schoolchildren stage performances during which parents talk, and schools offer parties featuring cheese pies and sweets, Santa and stories, crafts and (in our case) Cretan dances and Zumba. Christmas carnivals spring up in various city squares, parks, and stadiums, with colorful rides, giant bubbles, and seasonal activities for children, as well as opportunities for commerce by immigrants, Roma, and Greeks. Greeks gather at the homes of friends and family for reunions, reminiscences, gifts for the kids, food, and drink--and to share their pessimism about the future of Greece, complaining about high taxes and expenses, with salaries back at 2006 levels for those who still have jobs, and ever lower pensions. I have spoken with only one person who believes the current centrist coalition government is doing the right thing, and only one other person who believes the leftist SYRIZA (the main opposition party) can improve things. And those are the leading political parties in Greece, nearly tied in the polls--but with not even a quarter of respondents supporting either one.

Piraeus, or Pireas (the port city that runs into Athens), is really not where I wanted to spend this most home- and family-centered holiday (in my own American experience), partly because it's not a place where I can satisfy my very particular sentimental and aesthetic preferences for small colorful lights on large houseplants and live Christmas trees, plus the dozens of red and white candles my mother used to light all over our spacious living room, the menorah candles for Hanukkah, a fire in the fireplace (and no concern for smog), hot chocolate and Monopoly after ice skating and sledding or frisbee football, my mother's cooking and baking and our Christmas cookie decorating sessions: my all-American, intercultural, nostalgic memories, not even completely marred by my parents' divorce, with extended family so far-flung across our large continent that we adopted dear friends as family to share holidays with us. Of course, this first Christmas and New Year’s after my mother died were bound to be difficult. I miss her, as well as my father, and I haven’t yet gotten used to her absence.

But here we are with my mother in law (one of the most thoughtful, accommodating, unselfish people I know) in Piraeus for the typically long school vacation: more than two weeks this year, to encompass everything from Christmas Eve through New Year's and then the celebration of the lights (Epiphany) and Agios Ioannis (Saint John's) day. And it was busy enough here with the shopping, children's gifts, kitchen cleanup, visiting with Greek family, and cooking (including my annual turkey soup with leftovers from the bird Greeks eat only at Christmas and New Year's, along with goat and pork) that I kept my nostalgic desires in check and just accepted the day for what it was, here and now, festive and celebratory in its own family- and food-centered Greek way.

While the White Mountains of Crete have been living up to their name, well covered with snow for weeks now, here in Piraeus on my Christmas morning walk it felt like fall, with mild temperatures and many trees still full of more yellow leaves than we tend to see in our part of Crete, with some crumbling underfoot as they used to back in Pennsylvania, except that here they mix with citrus trees in front of the few dilapidated and renovated neoclassical houses that remain, dwarfed between five to seven-story apartment blocks. A few boats decorated with lights add an interesting twist to the ubiquitous Christmas trees and scattering of Santas (and the large boat in Athens's central Syntagma Square provides an especially noteworthy return to Greek tradition this year after last year's bizarre, needlessly expensive scaffolding-light-and-noise monstrosity).

Once our company joined us, I witnessed an interesting Christmas dinner discussion of the accuracy of goat bone readers (like fortune tellers, or the readers of eggs and interpreters of coffee grounds left in a cup). A father claimed that the first initial of his then-future wife's name, the birth of their two sons, and the sons' first initials had all been correctly foretold by a Romanian woman, but his wife disagreed, and his son objected that such beliefs were un-Christian. A grandmother explained that the Orthodox Church allows such fortune telling on Saint George's day in April, and her son whispered to me that this was part of the church's attempts to reconcile the pagan and Christian beliefs of Greeks in early Christian times. I suppose I could have heard a similar conversation (which reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston) in some parts of the U. S., but I haven't been in the right place for it so far.

Young people in Greece sing their Christmas carols, or Calenda, in return for money, often accompanying themselves with triangles, on Christmas Eve morning and again on New Year's Eve morning and January 5, the day before Epiphany, which is known here as Fota, the festival of light and day for blessing the waters and boats (when a priest throws a cross into the freezing sea, and brave youths race to retrieve it). Sometimes we see wandering bands or accordionists playing carols or other music in the streets these days. What I'd never seen before was a little band of youths with two trombones, a clarinet, a trumpet, and a drum
marching through a small neighborhood "super"market as they played (and how they could do that, with the crowds in that small space, I don't know; I find it difficult to just make my way through some of the aisles to shop there when it's busy!). I hadn't ever seen (or heard) the Calenda played with plastic tubes of varying lengths, either, as groups of visitors did at the Eugenides Foundation's Interactive Science and Technology Exhibition Hall next to its digital planetarium last week. I played my part best in the carol with the same tune as "Jingle Bells," where I actually knew the rhythm. Then we watched a wonderful film about expeditions to Everest, which was the highlight of our visit, since some of the exhibits didn't work correctly, although others were fascinating. Our favorite was the air percussion room, where it sounded like we were playing drums, cymbals, and bells when we hit the air.

Actually, there was a great deal more energy, as well as far more people, when the Technical University of Crete hosted a science fair for elementary school students on December 7, with chemistry demonstrations using ordinary household materials such as baking soda, vinegar, eggs, water, oil, and dyes; small robotic dogs and soccer players that ran (awkwardly) and attempted goals (without any remote control); cell phones to tell when plants must be watered; illustrations and elementary discussions of mathematical models and fractals; computer-generated shadow puppetry; elementary students' exhibits of the water cycle and a volcano that erupted; and more demonstrations than anyone could visit in a few hours. What was most encouraging was that both children and parents were excited and impressed by the science, and with an estimated 3,000 visitors, it felt like the university was THE place to be on that Saturday afternoon! My son even delayed leaving for a birthday party in order to watch more of the chemistry demonstrations. I suppose that event was more impressive than the Athens museum both due to the enthusiastic, energetic efforts of hundreds of students and professors, and because Chania residents unaccustomed to access to a science museum really appreciated seeing something extraordinary.

More recently, we delayed our venture into central Athens to see what Christmas carnivals and activities might impress our children and to check out this year's lovely traditional decorations in Syntagma Square, because of concern about the severe smog created by the fireplaces and wood stoves used to heat homes. This is the result of heating oil prices that are drastically higher than a few years ago (and much higher than in New York and London), thanks to the government’s efforts to combat smuggling and to raise more of the money that the Troika demands, while salaries are so much lower than they used to be, and many families’ electricity has been cut off because they couldn’t pay their bills. There has been such a serious problem with air quality in Athens and some other Greek cities that children and elderly people were advised to stay indoors some days, and people were asked to stop using fireplaces. Since one teenager died and another couple's house burned down during recent attempts to heat homes with fires, more assistance has been offered to the most impoverished so they can afford to heat their homes more safely, but I don't know if the aid will reach enough people in time to prevent more tragedies. And southern Greece isn’t even very cold yet. We are fortunate; we are still able to pay our bills, even though D’s salary and benefits have been cut several times. I was not even bothered by the air quality in the city; nor did I notice a smell of smoke outside. Even so, each time I came in after going out at night, I was surprised to find that my hair smelled like a wood fire.

The government and its supporters claim that the economy is improving--but so they've been saying for some time, and many ordinary Greeks have yet to see evidence of this. Granted, Greece will have a primary surplus this year, and investors in government bonds will make a great deal of money, but this occurs at the expense of people who lack heat, electricity, homes, sufficient warm clothing and shoes, necessary health care, and/or adequate nutritious food, since the government and the Troika have acted less to promote ordinary people's well-being than to help banks, bonds, and the national economic numbers that are most important to the upper classes. It's true that some Greeks have enough money to rent little cars for small children or pedal-powered cars for families next to the extensive Paleo Faliro playgrounds and promenade by the sea, while others can afford the entry fees required for children's holiday activities that were free last year, when the city of Athens spent far more on Christmas, or pay for carnival rides. New exercise equipment for adults in Paleo Faliro, a new daycare center and toddlers' playground in Neo Faliro, and still
impressive metro stations such as the one in Kerameikos with its sculpted forest also imply a measure of prosperity. 

However, many small businesses are struggling to stay open, or closing, leaving many empty spaces for rent or destroyed by weather and vandalism. Tens of thousands of university students began their fall semester only in mid December due to staff strikes, and prisons suffer from such excessively overcrowded, unhygienic, barbaric conditions that they sound like they resemble the dungeons of the Dark Ages (Greek prison system collapsing – labeled 'inhuman'). Doctors serving Greek public servants, including teachers and professors,
have been striking for months, except for emergency treatment, leaving basic and preventive care unprovided for many who cannot afford to pay private doctors. The article about the "Council of Europe report: 10austerity imposed human rights abuses in Greece" provides a concise overview of the ways hastily applied, inadequately considered austerity measures threaten the health and well-being of Greeks and other Europeans with their negative effects on pensions, health care, workers' rights,

unemployment rates, and freedom of expression, rather than Safeguarding human rights in times of economic crises” (as the report is titled). The article suggests that Greek leaders' plans to satisfy the Troika's demands to save money often end up conflicting with the Treaty on European Union and the European Social Charter. On subways and sidewalks, wandering Roma children with accordions  and collection cups compete with Greek beggars' stories of hardship, prompting some handouts, some silence, and one well-dressed middle-aged woman’s notation of an unemployed father's address, with the comment that she wanted to send him something.

On the other hand, some free-spirited Greek youths demonstrated their exuberance with back flips and twists into the Paleo Faliro sand the other day. And the impressive wall painting of two blue hands cupped below a flaming euro coin (pictured in my October 22, 2012 blog) outside the Theatro kato ap' tin Gefira (Theater Under the Bridge) near the Olympiakos soccer stadium in Neo Faliro has been replaced by a possibly more hopeful image of a lit candle. I don't know if that refers to the Christmas holiday, or to increased hope for the Greek economy and the country as a whole. In any case, we shall see whether the midnight firecrackers and phone calls of New Year’s Eve, the Vasilopita or New Year’s cake, with one piece set aside for strangers, and the family gatherings over holiday dinners foreshadow a more joyful, caring, generous and hopeful year for Greece in 2014. We finally visited the nearby Archaeological Museum of Piraeus for the first time yesterday and were impressed with its small but often impressive collection before beginning a long seaside walk past the boats and harbors of Piraeus, so that was a good start for us. May it be a happier new year for those who struggled in 2013.


  1. The details about life in Greece that you share are absolutely fascinating. Have you ever heard of the show "This American Life"? There was an episode that you might like which featured some of the journalists from Planet Money-- Thank you for sharing your observations and thoughts!

  2. Thank you, Sonya! Yes, I know "This American Life," although I don't often get to listen to it. I'll check that out.