Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Greek New Year's calendar (Καζαμίας)

lettersIt's becoming a bit of a bad habit: I've stopped sending Christmas cards. It wasn't always like this; I used to send out quite a few. When a friend of mine saw me writing so many cards to send overseas, she inquired about the postage that these cards would cost me to send. I was quite disgusted: she was a diaspora Greek like myself, on a working and life-experience holiday in Greece. Since we were the ones that had left others behind, I thought it only right, as a personal duty, to let people know where I was and what I was up to. So once a year, I'd buy some generic cheap made-in-china Christmas cards, write a letter which I'd photocopy so that everyone got the same news, tuck it into the signed card and send it off to my friends and relatives in the little Greek enclave of Wellington that was my former neighbourhood. Back in the less-connected days of contemporary times, when there were no mobile phones or internet, snail mail was the only cheap way to communicate with friends and relatives.

When my mother died and my father left New Zealand, the cellphone and the internet were already firmly entrenched in most people's daily life - to the detriment of snail mail. People now built up their email address lists in Outlook Express instead of that little address book we used to carry in our bags or briefcases. Letter writing and Christmas cards became a thing of the past, effectively ringing the death knell for snail mail.

What made me decide to send out some Christmas snail mail this year was the memory, as a diaspora Greek, of what it felt like to receive Christmas cards from our Greek relatives. I ate Greek food, I watched Greek films, I spoke Greek, I taught Greek to children at the community centre and adults at evening classes; I lived, breathed and felt Greek, even though I never really knew Greece at all, since I had never lived there up to that time. Greece, shrouded by ancient legends and great heroes, known to the world for giving it democracy, was a country which had an almost mythical status in my childhood.

My sole visit to Greece seemed too short. Just when we'd got used to the good weather (1974 spring-summer season), just when we had met and got close to our grandparents (two of whom I never got to see again, while one was already dead before I went), just when we had practically forgotten where we had come from (I could be forgiven for this, since I was only 8), we went back 'home' to New Zealand, and continued to live Greece through the language, the church, the odd phone call, the eventual arrival of the video, and finally the much yearned-for Christmas card, which assured us that we were still remembered over there, despite the great physical distance that divided us.

Living in Greece now for more than two decades, I realise that it's the tiny little things that my Greek friends abroad miss about Greece: those random odds and ends make all the difference, reminding them of the happy, spontaneous and possibly crazy time they spent in Greece. Although virtually costless and ubiquitous in the homeland, these tangible bits of nostalgia are highly sentimental and quintessentially Greek, often based on old customs and traditions that were once integral parts of the Greek identity, the kind of things one would consider adding to a list containing "You know you're Greek when you own..." essentials.

The shop was not busy on the day that I went to buy my friends' coveted bit of Greekness. The owner of the store was strumming his bouzouki (I'm not kidding), momentarily glancing up to smile at me as I entered the store. It was a public holiday in Hania (in honour of the town's cathedral), so even the newsagent should have been closed, especially given his proximity to the church, but some people like to work continuously in these free-market days, hoping to make an extra buck or two, especially this particular store, which consistently sells at a higher profit rate. The page-a-day calendars looked fresh out of the printer's press. There was a nice selection to choose from in terms of sizes and themes. Not only are these page-a-day calendars made in Greece, but they are sold only among Greeks, and can only be imported from Greece, as such items are not actually made in other countries: they are a veritable piece of Greek folklore and art.

Virgin Mary Wall Calendar Holder with 2012 Refill

Page-a-day calendars are old-fashioned but quintessential items in most Greek houses. They are particularly helpful in reminding people about namedays. These calendars are usually stuck to the wall in the kitchen. They are often bought as presents for grandmothers, already mounted on a piece of wood or stiff card, that can be hung up in the same way as any wall calendar. A religious picture usually accompanies the calendar; in modern times, contemporary art is often used.

The Greek page-a-day calendar provides the owner of such an item with a great amount of interesting daily trivia: sunrise time, sunset time, moon quarter, which day of the year we are on (and in reverse), the date, the namedays celebrated on that day, and the day's selection of hymns according to the Greek Orthodox church. The actual date is the one left showing every day on the calendar. As each page is peeled off, the owner is in for a surprise: on the back of the page with yesterday's date is found a little poem (in Greek of course!): an anecdote, a proverb, an old-fashioned saying or a religious caveat, depending on the calendar themes. I was in for a treat this year - the store also sold a 'cooking anecdotes' version: each page contains words of culinary wisdom or a recipe.

The page-a-day calendar is a quintessential icon of Greekness. It acts like a private εκκλησία (church): God help the rural dweller who does not have one of these in the house...
one a day greek calendar
The page-a-day calendar answers all these questions for you:
What day is it today? (the first word gives the day, the big number the date, and the last word the month); I wonder who's celebrating their nameday. (right under the big number); What time should I milk the cows? (sunrise time is given right below the name of the day); When should I feed the chickens? (sunset time is next to sunrise time); Is it time to trim the grapevine? (moon quarter is stated next to sunset time - agricultural tasks are performed according to whether the moon is getting 'bigger' (ie approaching full moon) or getting 'smaller' (approaching new moon); Is it a fasting day? (the bold text below sunset/sunrise/moon quarter: eg καταλυσις εις παντα = 'non-fasting day'); What shall I read? (bible reading for the day given in the two lines above the name of the month); Any ideas for cooking? (it's written on the back of the paper - you will see it once you peel off it off, tomorrow - other versions of this calendar come with poems, sports trivia and religious verses). 

It may look like an unnecessary item in this connected day and age, but this is not the case at all - there are still people who do actually need it, especially those living away from urban centres, people who are not or cannot for some reason be connected to the rest of the world, living in places where the last bakery closed down years ago, and the local church only holds services on a once-a-month basis, apart from the annual saint's day that it commemorates. And the sad thing is that the common wall-type calendar simply doesn't supply the wealth of information that this super-cheap page-a-day calendar offers. Calendars sold by schools and sports clubs to raise funds are often given to yiayia and papou as a 'souvenir' by their grandchildren of their team's achievements, but they never come up to the high standard of the page-a-day: the photos of the class groups and sports teams (and to a greater extent, the sponsors' advertising) are deemed more important than the actual calendar, so that all you get is the date (number, day, month, year), and not the important useful information that a page-a-day calendar provides.

When I presented my purchases at the shop counter, a (Greek) friend of the owner (who was keeping him company on this non-shopping day) was amazed to see me buying so many. "Really kinky!" he laughed. "They're a little retro, aren't they?" I was shocked by this comment: I would be even more surprised if he had never seen such a calendar! In Hania, it's very hard to be entirely urbanised and completely detached from old-fashioned customs, because we are surrounded by them. Maybe he was a born-and-bred townie, entering the rural areas only when in search of a good taverna. Greece is a concept but if you don’t get Greeks to buy the concept, forget about it. The shop owner's friend clearly wasn't buying the concept...

A cousin abroad asked me if I could send a one-a-day calendar to his mother. Instead of Christmas cards this year, I sent them off to all my friends and family abroad. This calendar is absolutely essential for keeping track of NAMEDAYS.

This little calendar provides daily entertainment for all the family. Children like to be the ones that peel off each page, mothers usually read it, fathers ask to hear the joke-of-the-day, and everyone uses it to remember namedays. The Greek abroad will view it as a concrete reminder of the homeland: yiayia always had one in her house.


To the lucky recipients whose homes have been graced by the presence of this quintessential icon of Greekness, I hope you have fun with it. If you don't have direct access to one of these yourself, you can find something similar online at the Kazamias site, a yearly "encyclopaedic almanac" containing "events, astrology, predictions, dream explanations and stories relevant to the New Year" (also available as a paperback). I wonder who interprets the shop owner's friend's dreams - perhaps he uses some kind of mobile phone app to get this information...

HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone - see you again next year.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.