You often hear people say, “I want a traditional Christmas”. Does the word “traditional” mean anything more than the Christmas you remember from your childhood?
This summer, a Greek-American friend told me he hoped to come to Greece for a “Greek Christmas”. But is there a traditional Greek Christmas that he can remember? Has there ever been a “Greek Christmas” at all?
The answer to the last question is yes. You can see it in the streets of Paroikia. Today it sports Santa Claus (still usually called St. Basil), electric lights, reindeer, and plastic trees. The traditional Greek Christmas that a Parian’s children will remember will be this one, and complaints about its imported, tawdry cheapness will be forgotten.
On the other hand in Paroikia there is the Christmas Bazaar at the Archilochos Society, the ceremonial lighting of the tree, the carol singing organized by members of the international community and Maestro Orfeas’ a cappella concerts, all of them delightful.
When Queen Victoria assumed the throne of England, Christmas was much different from what it has become.
“Traditional Christmas” was brought by Prince Albert from Germany, and in fact the debased signs of Christmas now sweeping the world (including Germany) are American entrepreneurial simplifications of Albert’s Christmas, which you are free to deplore, but not to ignore, so invasive are they.
My first Christmas in Paros was in 1965, almost five years before my wife and I moved here. I had no idea what to expect, though I knew it would not resemble that in my home town, New York City. What I discovered was that there was hardly any Christmas at all. For decoration, the town of Paroikia (few wintered in Naousa then) set up a little rowboat with a candle (electricity, just installed, was only on a few hours every evening, and few places had it). The bakery made two special sweets, kourabiedhes and phoinikia (now called melomakarona). My farmer neighbors joked about the malicious sprites called the Kallikantzari who haunted the fields after sunset during the Twelve Days of Christmas, and were impressed that my wife was willing to traverse the nocturnal fields with just a flashlight. A few children went about to sing the sweet four-bar ditty with a triangle in exchange for coins, but this happened mostly on New Year’s Day, which is also St. Basil’s Day. Much of Europe still allows St. Nicholas to show up on his own day, December 6th, and a few better-off Parian children used to get simple presents then.
More than the usual number of people attended church, though hardly most people, and the religiously observant kept the fast. The Epiphany, on January 6th, was a weightier holiday than Christmas. So the Greek holiday season stretches from December 6th to January 6th. Tired of New York’s insistent pressure to gaiety, shopping, and Jingle Bells, I felt relieved.
In the late 70s the mayor of Paroikia, the late Doctor Kebabis, asked the Aegean Center, run by the late Brett Taylor, to put some Christmas decorations around the dimly lighted town, the first ever. I remember making them and hanging them; not everyone was sure what they signified. Even then I could see that they presaged the inevitable loss of the old ways, ways that depended on isolation, unquestioning belief, and modesty. That mindset, which had a certain beauty, is gone forever.
Should we then not welcome Christmas? We should, we do. Christmas has always been a thinly veiled pagan holiday, celebrating the rebirth of the sun (a favorite Christmas conceit for English poets is sun son). We hearten ourselves before the long gloom of winter, celebrate the encouraging lengthening of daylight, praise milky mother and child, and decorate our lives with lights, trees, music old and new, rich food and drink, friends and family, and church. It is a holiday for children and the child within. The serious holiday, of course, is Easter, for Christians the fulcrum of all history that proffers the possibility of salvation in the next world. But that is not till spring.
So Christmas, during my time on Paros, has altered from a minor holiday mixing high Byzantine Christian elements and local seasonal customs with a kind of quiet beauty, to the obtrusive razzle-dazzle of what we see now, starting mid November to increase shopping opportunities.
“Traditional”, I am convinced, is a word whose meaning wobbles. Habitual practices change fast, and we cannot escape our world, not on Paros, not anywhere. At Christmas, we say this world is wonderful. That is the meaning of Christmas.