It was New Year’s Eve, 1982 and it was a hot, still Melbourne night. Once again, we had got together with our cousins to see in the New Year, this time at Uncle Jim’s house in the back streets, off Inkerman St in St Kilda.
Uncle Jim was half a generation younger than my parents and a more recently arrived immigrant so had not, as yet, served the necessary years of penitence in the inner city to have made the obligatory move to leafy middle suburban Melbourne.
New Year’s Eve always included us playing cards with our dads. On any other day, playing cards for money was strictly taboo and frowned upon, particularly by our mothers. On NYE however, we kids would get a seat at the big boys table and play cards with our fathers, frothing with excitement. Playing thirty-one on NYE for loose change was sacrosanct and a rite of passage for every effervescent youngster.
By about 10pm our fathers would give us the nod, bribe us with a handful of coins and we knew it was time to make ourselves scarce and let the men continue the more serious business that followed our departure. In the meantime, we would seek out any form of mischief, whilst our dads were distracted.
On this particular night, my cousin George Sykiotis and I dared each other to venture across the road to the Housing Commission tower and climb the stairwell to the top. This sort of adventure into ‘bodgie’ turf would normally be surely out of bounds but on New Year’s Eve, we were bathed in waves of parental affection so as to think, normal rules did not apply.
We momentarily considered the danger of such a transgression but George’s boldness was reinforced by his latest acquisition… a pocket knife. I immediately thought that it was more likely to invite jeopardy than anything else. For a couple of ‘Balwyn boys’ this was like crossing into No Man’s Land. But George was undeterred. After all, we shared a spiritual bond – our grandfather’s name. And if all else failed, we knew St George would protect us.
The transgression ended with us scurrying out as quickly as possible with hearts pounding and thankfully our faith in St George’s mystical powers wasn’t tested.
The New Year’s Eve get togethers were the bookend of another year in our youth where, every other week, we seemed to be with cousins or koumbaroi celebrating the next Name Day. The year’s ritual of ‘yiortes’ was so well rehearsed that by my early teens, I knew our exact routine, for the entire year, off by-heart.
New Year’s Day was spent visiting Koumbaro Vasili in Reservoir for lunch followed by our Uncle Vasili in East Hawthorn. From there, January was punctuated by a smorgasbord of yiortes – Agiou Yianniou, Antoniou, Athanasiou, Gregoriou…
The entire year’s celebrations were set, predetermined, blessed by the gods and how we wished each next annual Saints day to arrive. For us as kids, they couldn’t come soon enough.
Not only were they the ultimate play date but they were the days where norms of behaviour were duly abandoned. At yiortes it was…almost anything goes. And there were never any outsiders!
We took our lead from our fathers who would break from their conventional (strict and conservative) selves and immerse themselves in their koumbaro parea.
And because we always celebrated men’s Name Days, to this day, I still do not know the first name of some of our koumbares as they were always referred to in the possessive of the family’s surname – so my mum was «η Καπνιού».
Whilst our mothers took great pride in putting on a display of their best nikokiremenes selves with demonstrations of unmatched cooking prowess, there really were only two items on the menu that were prerequisites for a good night.
One was «το ψτο». Οκ, most of you would know it as «ψητό» (lamb on a spit), but in our closed social circle of Agriniotes, vowels were often an optional extra.
And the second item on the menu was… VB. And we are not talking a few stubbies that are suckled on, a sip at a time but VB long necks and dozens of them, to be consumed in such volumes as to make you wonder at man’s capacity for endurance.
In late February, it was our family’s turn to host the annual migration of Agriniotes to our modest weatherboard bungalow in (now uppity) Balwyn to celebrate St Theodore’s Day. Once the lamb on the (hand turned) spit was underway, the next agenda item was the beer. We would fill the bath tub with as many dozens of VB long necks as possible.
The VB’s would be covered by ice – sourced from the Auburn railway station ice shute which spat out slabs of ice that were in turn broken into angular ice pieces. Crushed ice just wouldn’t cut it as the ice needed to stay the distance of a long night ahead. Once the bath tub was full to the brim, we would then place a few bottles of lemonade in the bath tub… for the women and kids!
That’s fair – eight dozen long necks for the men and three bottles of lemonade for everyone else!
Over the years, we had the process down pat and during the course of the night it was my duty to ensure that the men on the ‘war front’ were supplied with an unending stream of ice cold beer. I was like young Henry in Goodfellas… “keep ‘em coming”.
After dinner, the tall stories would morph into middle aged men, arm in arm singing out of tune klephtic ballads at the top of their drunken voices. Then the dancing would start in earnest. Our mothers would start the obligatory sirta but then the men would be stirred into frenzy by their favourite tsamika. All sorts of mayhem and revelry would ensue but at yiortes, they were all sanctioned by the Saints.
In later years, I was involved in the Greek Orthodox Community of Box Hill. Every other week at church there was a Saints Day to observe. But these Saints were the antithesis to the ones I had grown up with and were subject to torture, persecution, a grimly death and often dismemberment. These Saints were so foreign to me that, I felt as though they were not part of my culture. For me, Saints were the embodiment of fun, joy, revelry and merriment. It was yet another stepping stone into my forfeiting the Orthodox part of my Greekness.
Today, yiortes are (sadly) a much more sedate affair but at least they give me a reason to call my long list of friends and relatives to wish them the best for the year, every year.
And for all those who continue the tradition… strength to your arm, as without these traditions, we are poorer for it. Traditions provide strength and a sense of permanence without which we simply become part of the anonymous modern day swill – consumers.
Wishing everyone at Neos Kosmos and all its readers, Χρόνια Πολλά και Kαλή Xρονιά (ΗΝΥ).