Tuesday, 27 December 2011

That's what Christmas was like (Έτσι ήταν τα Χριστούγεννα)

Christmas is very much a family-oriented feast in Crete. This year, I spent it with the family of my godson. This is pretty much how it went for me.

Christmas time is a difficult time to be frugal, because the day calls for more luxury. Apart from bringing out my Christmas tablecloths, I usually buy a packet of Christmas-decorated paper napkins for the family lunch, and that's about all; I don't indulge in throwaway spending. We were going to have a simple cheap pork roast at home, but we found ourselves being invited at the last minute (on the evening of Christmas Eve) to a friend's house. He has a very strong bond with his parents' old village home in a remote village, close to the mountains, where only about 30 people now reside permanently throughout the year.

Although N lives in the town, he keeps chickens, rabbits and sheep in the fields around the village house, which is a bit like a rabbit warren. The rooms were built one by one, as they were needed, originally by the grandfather of his grandfather. N's family were the last to reside there, as now, he and all his siblings have moved away to lower ground. The house has not been maintained as a villa; rather, it continues to remain a village house, with only the bare basics in creature comforts. Although you will not find a working television, or telephone, or internet in the house (and cellphones only work near the outhouse toilet-cum-shower), there's a table and some chairs, a few beds and a small kitchen. All N's siblings have some claim to the house - it was recently sectioned off into compartments that each one can use when they want to get away from the noisy city for a day or more, with the kitchen and bathroom being used communally.

As the invitation was rather last minute, I got up early on Christmas Day and made some more chestnut truffles, after having made them for our friends who we had visited on Christmas Eve. This year, I had also bought another packet of those Christmassy paper napkins just to line some recycled cake-shop boxes which I filled with the truffles and took to our friends. That, along with a supermarket carrier bag with a couple of brocoli from our garden, formed our presents (along with a 50 euro note for my godson to buy whatever he wanted). We drove up the long narrow windy mountain road in wet weather. The scene looked very bleak. Although the village is not very far away from the town, it somehow seems more natural to stay on lower ground and leave the mountains to themselves. People never move to such high ground for happy reasons - it's usually for the purposes of escaping the enemy.

When we arrived, N was chopping wood to get the BBQ going, while his wife was boiling some mutton for stock. N was in charge of cooking in the outdoor kitchen, while his wife was in charge of the indoor kitchen. The wood fire oven - where the roast would cook - was warming the hallway very well. The kitchen was also warm because it was very small and there was a pot boiling furiously on the element, causing condensation. The dining room was very cold. But N did not apologise for the low temperatures: "It's winter. So it's cold. And it's Christmas. Jesus was born in a manger. It wasn't heated."

The children rushed off to play with N's children. The typical separation of the sexes also took place: the men went to the cellar where they got the BBQ going while N's wife and I stayed indoors. I helped to prepare the salad (plain cabbage - another of N's friends had bought along some radishes which needed cleaning, while his brother-in-law had bought some sausages for the BBQ).

N doesn't grow fruit or vegetables like we do: his specialty is meat. He had slaughtered a sheep which yielded 30 kilograms of meat. This was turned into a roast with potatoes and some of it was boiled to make a pilafi (Cretan pearly rice specialty). N could have taken the meat to his town home, packaged it into the freezer and kept his family fed throughout the winter. But that isn't the way N likes to enjoy his home-grown produce:"If I don't cook this meal here in my parents' home, where I was born and raised, I can't enjoy my meat. I'm just carrying on the same customs that my parents carried out when they were living here. I've spent nearly all my Christmasses here and I don't want that to change."

Afroditi is the oldest resident in the village. She walks through the village every day after lunch, and Christmas Day was no exception. We all offered her a plate, but she waved it away saying that she did not have teeth for meat, and had cooked herself some rice today. When I asked her who she spent her Christmas with, she replied that she spent it alone. Although her nieces and nephews had come the evening before to take her down to the town, she refused to go

There is also one more vital element to enjoying home-raised meat: "Although I like bringing my wife and children to the village, I know that they also like to be around the company of friends. In the summer, things are quite convivial because people who have moved away from the village come here to spend their holidays. The days are long and hot, and a lot of people pass through the area. But in the winter, things can be rather bleak. It's cold and damp, there are no neighbours (they have all died or moved away), not even the one or two cafes that normally operate in the summer are open. That's why I always invite my friends to come up here too. There's no point celebrating Christmas up here if I'm going to be up here on my own. it's not right to celebrate Christmas on our own. I'm really glad you all came, you're doing me a favour. I wouldn't be able to enjoy my meal if I had gone to all this trouble to slaughter a sheep and light the wood fire, if I was just with my family. We all want company. We're live in a society, we're not hermits. I like to see the whole house fill up. This is how we celebrated Christmas when my parents were alive. The villagers would all greet each other, even if it was at the main square. We were never alone."

<<Φάτε τώρα παιδάκια, γιατί αύριο θα 'ερθει η φάβα.>>
"Εat now, children, because tomorrow, the yellow split-peas are coming."
(A friendly reminder that today is a feast day, and tomorrow it's back to the grind.)

N's sense of hospitality reminds me very much of my parents' generosity, the way my mother prepared food (mainly cakes and biscuits) and shared them among friends and relatives, the way my father liked to go out for a meal and never let the other guests pay. When all the dishes were ready, the children helped to lay the table. Eleven places were set. The platters were brought in one by one. As the table filled up, room had to be made so that the remaining platters could find their rightful place on the table. "I'm not a rich man, but I don't think rich people can eat as well as I can. Not even Queen Elisabeth can find food this local, fresh and seasonal."

Eventually, all the platters and bowls had arrived at the table, and we all took our seats. We did not feel the cold. In fact, the room took on a warmth that could only have come from the joy found within its walls. Everyone immediately got stuck into the food. The feast could not wait: its aroma was clogging our noses. N poured his home-brewed wine into our plastic cups (those who did not prefer wine drank water), and we all clinked glasses in the customary Greek way, wishing each other Σ'υγεία! (from the Greek phrase Στην υγειά σας = To your health). Were a stranger to be passing by the house at that moment, he would have heard our gleeful banter. As he peered through the small window, he would have seen the happiest people in the world. The image that might have come immediately to his mind as he watched the clinch of the glasses would have been of Bob Cratchit's house, and the words of Tiny Tim: "God bless us, every one."

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