Celebrating Christmas for the first Greeks in Australia was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“No home, no family, no food, no Christmas,” says Alexandra Vakitsidis who nearly fifty years ago, at the tender age of 17, left her little village in Florina to migrate to Australia.
Despite the difficulties she faced upon her arrival, Alexandra worked extremely hard taking on the challenge to prove to the world what was meant to be Greek.
“Like all of us migrants, we managed to survive in a country that we respected and although Australia was reasonably welcoming, there were times xenitia was unbearable,” says the mother of two, who had no family members in Australia and her memory of her first Christmas down under is filled with tears and incredible sadness.
“Particularly around that time, my mind would wander off back home to the people I loved and the traditions we were accustomed to before we left our village.”
On that first Christmas day young Alexandra couldn’t stop thinking of her grandmother back in their village, the fluffy white snow covering the house rooftops, the women cooking delicious Christmas treats and the children singing carols on the streets.
“At the same time, I was alone in a room with nobody around to share a meal and say Χρόνια Πολλά,” recalls Alexandra who soon realised that if she wanted change, she would have to be the one to instigate it.
“That’s when I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and got up, wiped my tears and run outside. I started knocking on people’s doors asking them to sing the Christmas carols in Greek,” recalls Alexandra who in 1996 was honoured for her contribution in the promotion of Greek culture and tradition by the Consul General of Greece in South Australia while two years later, the Governor of South Australia honoured Ms. Vakitsidis for her tremendous contribution towards education and culture.
Fast forward 50 years, and the determined yiayia of five is now the driving force behind the group ‘Olympic Spirit Greek Friends’ which consists of a team of 25 women that every year drive around Adelaide during the months of December and January, knocking on Greek people’s doors and singing the Greek Christmas carols.
“We love meeting all our fellow Greeks and create such special memories with them. The response is so touching and overwhelming,” says Alexandra who just this year will be visiting approximately 800 households raising thousands of dollars which will then be donated to the Cancer Centre of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide.
“In life one should never forget where they came from and the hardships they encountered along the way, that’s why I make sure my house and heart are always wide open for those who have no one to celebrate those special days with.
“After all, isn’t love and generosity the true spirit of Christmas,” concludes Alexandra.
“I was working and tears were streaming down my face”
Angeliki migrated to Australia from Korinthos in March 1961.
Shortly after arriving ‘down under’ she started working in SA’s country region growing potatoes, apples and apricots, just to make a living.
“Every day was a challenge, but I will certainly never forget my first Christmas in Australia,” says Angeliki who found herself working on Christmas Day just to please her boss who was not suitably impressed with her performance out in the fields.
“I was young, small framed and quite weak. I took double the time to complete my tasks, therefore, I found myself still working on Christmas Day. At the same time, I could hear everyone around me partying, chatting away, rejoicing and celebrating the festivities of the day. That’s when it hit me. I was totally alone on the other side of the world but there was nothing I could, so I continued to dig whilst tears were streaming down my face.”
That first feeling of despair and loneliness never left Angeliki.
“Since that time, I make sure my home is always open for anyone who wants to come and celebrate with us and I invite my children and family to do the same because life is only worth living when we love and help others,” says the 72-year-old grandmother.
The Zeibekiko of Xenitia
Dimitris was a builder in Athens when in 1959 he decided to leave Greece and try his luck in Australia.
Upon arrival, the young 20-year-old was crammed in a little four-bedroom apartment with another 17 people.
“Without any family, house and money, I didn’t feel like celebrating anyway, but one thing I do remember from that first Christmas was the fact that I wasn’t able to call my parents to wish them “Merry Christmas” and that was devastating,” says Dimitris who was also working at a farm on that first Christmas Eve.
“I remember there was a group of us working for a Greek farmer who was getting his house ready for a Christmas celebration, at which we were understandably not invited, but when the sun went down and we finished work for the day, the boss put on the music and as soon as I heard that zeibekiko playing, I don’t know what got to me. I jumped up and started dancing with tears streaming down my face. That’s when the farmer’s wife asked us to come in and celebrate with them.”
Since that day, Dimitris vowed to continue this act of kindness and always has his house open for people to come and enjoy.
“No person should ever be alone, particularly on days like Christmas,” he concludes.