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Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas carols (Κάλαντα)

Christmas in Crete is a rather quiet affair. For a start, it's cold, a climate not usually associated with the sunny Mediterranean, and most people like to stay indoors or at least keep themselves warm. In any case, Christmas is not the most important holiday season of the year, as it is in most other predominantly Christian Western countries; Easter is the most important festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar. Christmas in Crete is associated with family get-togethers and nameday celebrations for Manolides - Emmanuel (my late father's name), often shortened to Manolis, is a very common boys' name in Crete.

pohutakawa lots of snow in hania chania
Christmas in Wellington (left) and Crete (right)

New Zealand Christmas was a day to remember in our own household. It was synonymous with the start of the summer holidays, when the beautiful pohutakawa tree was in full bloom, its red spiky flowers covering Mt Victoria above our house, hence its role as the New Zealand Christmas tree. We spent hours cleaning the house, under our mother's orders, while she spent hours cooking. The best cutlery and crockery came out, sparkling crystal like the Christmas lights on our fake tree. The only time we ever had a real pine tree, we regretted every minute of it; the needles fell off the tree pretty much as soon as we put it up, creating a mess all over our carpeted flooring.

While the rest of New Zealand was thinking about summer holidays and barbecues on the beach, we were holding a banquet in honour of my father's name. So much food was cooked for Christmas that we survived for days on leftovers: lamb chops, oven potatoes, yemista, meatballs, pilafi, roast chicken, cabbage and lettuce salad, tomato and onion salad, tzatziki, the whole range of Cretan kalitsounia, and the full gamma of Greek and Kiwi desserts, with pride of place reserved for my mother's pavlova.

Christmas in Greece: melomakarona (honey and walnut syrup-steeped biscuits) and koura(m)biedes (shortbread cookies dusted with icing sugar ) are standard fare in most Greek households at this time.

Peter from Souvlaki for the Soul, a superb Greek-Australian food photographer with origins from Thessaly, was very creative this Christmas: he made star-shaped melomakarona and tree-shaped kourambiedes. Visit his sites for more spectacular food photography and good Greek food.

The Greek community in Wellington always organised a group of children to visit all the Greek households and sing Christmas carols on the evening of Christmas Eve. Money was collected on behalf of the community, and was used towards the maintenance of the church, the Greek school and various other community activities. My most memorable participation in the Christmas carol singing was when I was seven years old. We visited all the Greek households of Mt Victoria, where most of the Greek people lived at the time, and sang the traditional carols associated for the Year, to the tunes of a guitar and an accordion played by some of the older members of the community:

Αρχιμηνιά κι αρχιχρονιά (First of the month and first of the year)
κι αρχή- κι αρχή καλός μας χρόνος... (And the start of the good new year)
Άγιος Βασίλης έρχεται,(St Basil's coming)
από- από την Καισαρεία (From Caesarea)
... ... ...
Σ΄ αυτό το σπίτι που ΄ρθαμε (In this house that we have come)
πέτρα να μη ραγίσει (Not a stone should crack)
κι ο νοικοκύρης του σπιτιού (And the head of the family)
χίλια χρόνια να ζήσει... (May he live a thousand years...)

Carol singing is still a very important feature of Christmas throughout Greece. Children dressed in Christmas caps carry a triangle, walk around the neighbourhood, knock on people's doors and sing the carols appropriate for the day: there are different ones sung on Christmas Eve (to welcome Christ), New Year's Eve (to welcome the New Year), and the eve of the Epiphany (to celebrate the baptism of Christ). The carol-singers are sometimes treated to sweets, but the most important reason why they trot around the town in the cold singing carols in hoarse voices is to collect money, which they can choose to save or spend on Christmas presents.

Even though Easter is the most important festival in the Greek Orthodox calendar, Christmas takes on its own importance in the commercialised world of Western Europe. Even die-hard agnostics and atheists will not turn down a chance to celebrate a merry Christmas meal with all the trimmings, and they will not remain unmoved at the sight of young children singing with eager voices, collection box in hand. The most money I have ever given to individual carol singers was on Christmas Eve during a torrential downpour; the three children were the first carol singers to come by our house on that day, and I guessed (rightly) that there wouldn't be any others.

Sadly, this tradition has also been marred in recent times by opportunists finding the chance to get rich quick by overpowering unguarded children free of their parents' watchful eyes, stealing their money pouches and carol singing takings, which is why this tradition may slowly die out or continue on a more organised basis. But the gift of money is a more modern offering bestowed to carol singers; in the recent past of the island of Crete, up until the mid-20th century, children went from house to house holding, not a collection box, but a collection bottle, which was filled with olive oil as they sang more and more carols.


Last year my children took on the role of musicians at the Christmas Eve office lunch. My co-workers suggested that they sing the carols to them. The restaurant chef gave them a bread basket, and they collected enough money to buy their own Christmas toys that year. In the troubled economic times that we live in, I prefer to keep this tradition within the circles of close family and friends, who all play a small role in creating Christmas cheer during a time appropriately associated with happy children.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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