Friday, 28 December 2012

The carols season (Κάλαντα)

+Gregory Pappas recently wrote: I can't get one thing out of my mind today and have to share it, especially with people who know my commitment to "all things Greek." One of the most profound things I have read this year-- and perhaps ever-- came in Father Alex Karloutsos' annual Christmas message that he sends every year to his friends and family: “Why is it that we insist on giving our children everything our parents could not afford to give us and yet desist from giving them the priceless things of value that our parents did give us – our faith, culture and legacy?” These words inspired me to write this story.

The kids wanted to do the 'kalanta' thing; that is, sing the Christmas carols on the street, as is the tradition in Greece on Christmas and New Year's Eve. They've never done it, and they've heard from their school friends that they make money. My own children sing the carols to their grandmother and a couple of other relatives, and that's it because we don't have a huge circle of friends and family living close by to make this exchange; the scratch-my-back syndrome is now on the wane, at any rate. But clanging on a triangle and traipsing around town (often in the cold) is not my idea of a fun kids' activity. We live in a rural area, so it's not even easy to do this. Letting kids loose on the street in the town in an area we do not live in oursleves does not make me feel safe. The truth is that there is only one reason you do this for: to make money. And in this day and age, it is difficult to gauge who has spare change to give and who doesn't.

Winter life on Crete - damp but green, almost everywhere.

Λένε τα... κάλαντα στον ΠΑΟ για να βάλουν λεφτά στα ταμεία!
Athens 1960
On the morning of Christmas Eve, I woke up late because I was catching up on lost sleep from previous nights. I am on leave and enjoy the luxury of not having to keep checking the alarm clock to see what time it is. In fact, I took it out of the plug on purpose because I was sick of having it stare at me in the face. A call woke me up at 10am, my tenant in the town centre. She had just returned form a trip to her homeland, Albania, and wanted to pay me this month's rent. It doesn't worry me when the rent is paid by Dhanggit. The rent is always 'late', but she never ends up owing me anything. She hates banks, doesn't understand how to use cash machines, and prefers tangible money to plastic money. So she calls me some time in the month and tells me when to come and pick up the rent.

By the time I was ready to leave the house, some carollers had come to our place, a few more than previous years, which is not surprising given the economic climate, but it was a hilly climb to get to our house: they earned their €1 each just by walking up the hill. The change box is always ready at this time of year in our house; €1 per caroller, €1 extra for any gimmicks. Τhe same children come every year, children who we never see at other times during the year. My kids watched the others come and go, and kept pestering when they could do the same. We live in a rural neighbourhood. Houses are furhter apart in the villages. Christmas carolling is done on a more private basis in our area - grandparents listen to grandchildren, while some of the more adventurous trot around in the cold and knock hopefully on doors, to earn a euro a head. It's difficult to make them understand why I didn't want them to do this.

I asked them if they wanted to come with me to see Dhanggit. They like visiting her becuase she has two gorgeous friendly dogs. They came for the ride, and asked me if they could sing the carols to Dhanggit. Again, I couldn't expalin why I would prefer that we did not do this - it would look like I was visiting her to make money. Dhanggit is not rich. She is not even comfortable. But my kids can't see this, possibly because we live very frugally like Dhanggit and her family. But there are major differences between my life and Dhanggit's. I let the kids take their Santa caps and triangles, and decided to see what develops rather than get too bossy.

Πολύ περισσότερα παιδιά είπαν φέτος τα χριστουγεννιάτικα κάλαντα! - Φωτογραφία 1
The Greek Christmas symbol - the boat
When I visit Dhanggit, I always carry some garden vegetables to give her, whatever is in season. Today, it was a broccoli, a cabbage and a cauliflower which I picked from the garden. As we drove towards the town, we noticed a number of children on the road wearing Santa caps and holding triangles, often in pairs or groups of 3-4, but some were alone. Να τα πούμε could be heard everywhere. Some kids were clearly too young to be crossing the very busy road on their own. Others were looking around at the houses, wondering which door to knock. Some were knocking on doors that wouldn't open (not everyone opens their doors to carollers). Some had gimmicks - a Santa suit or a musical instrument were the most common items. One little group of girls was wheeling a disabled child on a street that lacked a firm footpath.

Athens 1950
Wouldn't you be scared if you were on your own carrying money in the street? I asked my kids. Everyone knows your pockets and bags would be full. How would you feel? They showed signs of the message sinking in: carolling is not a picnic, after all. It's all a question of risk, I suppose, and also need. Some people may feel that they need to do this. Others, like me, prefer to keep things in the family.

κάλαντα.jpgSinging the Chrsitmas carols door to door has never been easy in Greece, despite the fact that it is seen as a tradition and a rite of passage in some way, because everyone sings the carols in some form, and for the same purpose in mind at some point in their life. According to the folklorist Dimitris Loukatos (in his book Χριστουγεννιάτικα και των γιορτών, 1984), the carols season is a time when children go to places that are forbidden to them at other times, when they would normally be chased away by the caretakers or owners. The first child to knock on the door of a house (whether shyly or courageously) is usually the luckiest because it is treated as a charity act. Carol singing was a trend of smaller villages, brought down to the city as people became richer and could afford to give more. It was done on the evening of Christmas Eve, but with the knowledge of making a profit, the singing started even earlier during the day, to give children more time to reap the benefits.

Children in Athens have always had it tough:
"Apartment blocks are like fortified castles with their caretakers. They require energy to conquer. The large shops are better. The storekeepers are more freindly, traditional, nostalgic, they would not turn down a child, at least the first few chidlren, they will allow them to sing thier blessings and take the lucky tip. They will enter teh buses too, a new form of greek traditional life, a confined space and time to make contact with people. The conductor, a child of the nation himself, will welcome them with a laugh, if he rememebers that he too used to sing the carols when he was young... But no one will turn a blind eye to the abuser, which has invaded this cutsom in the last few years. The indirect goal of begging, omnipresent in all peoples and periods, has now become a direct goal. The tradition has entered the service of profit. Trends in miniatrue, which not even formal tourism cannot avoid. near the children have sprouted, with persistent competition, the adults, associations, brotherhoods, groups of misfortunate. The picturesque children ... are now concealed by robotic gramophones and their noisy orchestras..."
We arrived at Dhanggit's, where I lay down my bags of vegetables in her cosy kitchen, which had once been my own kitchen. She welcomed us from the back door (our secret signal that we are not strangers knocking on her inner city house). The kids looked around for her dogs, which came yapping into the kitchen on the sound of strangers' voices. Since she settled in Crete with her husband and two sons, Dhanggit hasn't been anywhere further than the town centre. She had not been back to her homeland since that rainy day when she crossed the mountains separating Greece from Albania 13 years ago, holding a baby wrapped in a blanket and a very young son trailing her.

Notice the plastic and metal canisters - in Crete's recent past, children were given olive oil (not money!) to sing the carols, and cakes.

I expected that she would have a lot to tell me. But the news was not good. She described a kind of misery that she encoutered in her homeland that is difficult to describe. I found it hard to believe this, as Albania is a neighbouring country to Greece and very close to Italy, which is supposedly the world's 8th largest economy. When global leaders talk about the crisis in Europe, Albania never gets a mention. All this talk of European development is clearly elitist. Some European countries will never be given a chance to develop.

We also hear stories from the media (both foreign and national) about Albanians leaving Greece during the crisis to go back home, which don't quite fit with the stories I was now hearing from Dhanggit. To cut a long story short, she spoke of extreme hardship which are not comparable to what the Greeks are complaining about. It's difficult to put it all into words; I'm good at recording details, but this story got the better of me. All this while, my kids listened in fascination. I watched their wide eyes and speechless mouths as they listened attentively to Dhanggit's recounting her experiences in the homeland. It's the first time they heard someone other than tbeir grandmother relating stories of poverty and hardship.

The most poignant story we heard about concerned food. It's just not as free and easy in Albania to feed yourself, even in self-sufficiency style, as we do in Crete. Here, you will never go hungry, Maria, Dhanggit insisted. People give you food all the time, they leave things on my door. Sometimes I don't even know who left it. Your former neighbours are always dropping by to give me something. This could never happen in Albania. Everything is expensive to buy and difficult to cultivate without machinery or money for petrol, if we had the machines to do it. I feel rich living in Crete. Your house is now my only home. I have no other.

Christmas in Athens, when kourambiedes were being sold for 80 drachmas per oka
- they now cost €8-10 per kilo! The photo below shows Christmas in Athens, 1960. Both photos can be bought from the Benaki Museum.

The children did not make any move to sing the carols, even though they were carrying their triangles. I feel that this was the best Christmas lesson they had had so far in their lives. It helped that it was told by someone other than their parents. We don't want to listen to our parents, because they sometimes sound harsh. But when we hear it from a stranger, we know they are not lying.

When we left Dhanggit's house, my children asked me how Dhanggit pays the rent if she is very poor. I told them I couldn't answer that, because I don't really know what money the family makes. It's obvious though that they are poor people. I reminded them that there was a time in the recent past when they didn't always have money to pay the rent since the economic crisis broke out. If worse comes to worst, they would simply live in the house rent-free, and we will wait for better times.

A custom of Hania on Christmas Eve is to have a seafood meal in the Agora, which was set up specifically for this event once the commercial shopping hours closed. The scene here (taken from this year's get-together) does not look Christmassy - only one tiny tree hints at the season. Instead, it shows happy people celebrating in the usual way they do every year at this time. Christmas is not so commercial in our town.

As we left Dhanggit's, I noticed a cabbage in a supermarket bag lying in the corner of her kitchen. It had the price tag on it - €0.89. I joked with Dhanggit that she needn't have bought it, had she known I would bring her one. Oh, I didn't buy that, Dhanggit said. Kiria Irene from across the road bought it for me. She said she missed us while we were away, and she didn't have anyhting to give me right now, so she just gave me whatever she had lying in her house at that moment.

The children didn't seem to notice the remaining carol singers on the road after we left Dhanggit's. When we got home, they seemed content to be back to their cosy warm house. They related the stories they heard to their father round the table at lunchtime. I don't know how long the message they got will be remembered, but they may need a new lesson every now and then in a different form to jog their memories. Let's hope they remember on New Year's Eve when the next round of 'kalanta' comes up.

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