An Athenian Christmas tale

Sotiris Strigas talks to MIKE SWEET about spending Christmas in Athens and the unique traditions his family shares over the festive season.

One year after the riots in Athens which included the mean-spirited torching of the fifteen metre high Christmas tree in Syntagma Square, families like that of Melbourne born Sotiris Strigas are hoping for a season of greater peace and goodwill this year.

The boat at Christmas is an old tradition in Greece” says Sotiris. “It comes from our attachment to the sea, and signifies a new beginning on life’s journey, and a journey with Christ.

Riots allowing, Sotiris, his wife Anna and their two young daughters Eleanor and Joanne will be joining thousands of other families at Syntagma to savour the capital’s festive mood.

This year the fairy-tale like Christmas tree is to be given discreet round the clock security.

As Sotiris welcomed me into the family home, an apartment in the northern suburb of Pefki, I am offered an unmistakably Greek taste of Christmas.

Generous platefuls of melomakarona and kourambiedes appear as Sotiris relates the story of his parents’ immigration to Australia in 1954, and how he was raised in Sydney.

Sotiris gained a Bachelor of Science at UNSW before coming to live in Greece when his parents returned in 1988. I wanted to know why, after 35 years, his family chose to return.

“It’s nostos – the root of the word nostalgia – a yearning for home,” he reflects, and admits freely to still feeling torn between the two cultures.

Because of being born in Australia, in order to get Greek citizenship Sotiris had to serve in the military.

“I did six months in the army medical corps. Thank goodness we didn’t have a war!”

A sales rep for a major dental products company, Sotiris married Anna 18 years ago.

They met in Kiato, the small coastal town in the north-eastern Peloponnese that is the ancestral home of both their families.

As we talk, it’s clear that there’s a poignant xenitia felt by Sotiris, who has a yearning to live in Australia again.

“Why? I grew up there. There are people who I love still living there.”

Pushed on what particular memories draw him back, he admits that it is the outback that pulls.

“My auntie Soula, who’s still alive, had a vineyard near Mildura. We would visit. That’s what I miss most.”

Anna, who has Australian citizenship from her father, is less inclined to move to Australia, and with their daughters Eleanor (14) and Joanne (11) having never known life outside Greece, it looks as though any visit to the birthplace of their father will be for a holiday only.

But for now the girls are looking forward to Christmas and the New Year. Undecided as to where they will spend the holiday period, Sotiris suggests it might be Athens rather than Kiato where his mother Eleni still lives. “We have a saying Christmas should be spent in the city, Easter in the village.”

One thing is for sure; they will attend church on Christmas morning. “Our faith is important to us,” says Anna, “Orthodoxy contributes to our identity.”

Wherever the family gathers, there will be Xristopsomou the round bread on the Christmas table and the sweet Stifda made by Sotiris’ mother.

As we talk about the interweaving of Christmas and new year celebrations here, and how the ancient cultural traditions predate ‘western’ images of Christmas, with its Santa Claus and Christmas Tree, my eyes are drawn to the twinkling lights that adorn a model fishing boat that takes pride of place in the living room where we sit.

“The boat at Christmas is an old tradition in Greece,” says Sotiris. “It comes from our attachment to the sea, and signifies a new beginning on life’s journey, and a journey with Christ.”

The passing into the New Year is marked in a particular way Sotiris tells me. Just before midnight the family will go outside the apartment, and as the new year is announced, a family member will step into the home, right foot first, and hurl a Rodi (pomegranite) onto the floor. This dramatically colourful act celebrates the richness of life to be enjoyed in the year ahead. Eleanor is looking forward to being the ‘rothi hurler’ this year.

A similarly ancient tradition would see Stachti (ash) being brought into the home on the turn of the year, to ward off evil spirits. In traditional Greek folklore the days around Christmas are considered dangerous, a time when the Kallinkatzari, a kind of devilish spirit gets up to mischief.

New Years Day itself is of course the feast day of Agios Vassilis and the day upon which Vassilopita is baked, the cake which conceals a coin or token for one lucky family member.

Like the rest of Greece, 2010 will see Sotiris and his family cope with much uncertainty.

With the economy in great difficulty, a new government charged once more with the responsibility to make unpopular reforms, no doubt aggressively challenged by a minority, the journey ahead may be difficult.

But as Athenians, the Strigas and thousands of families like them, have faced and overcome such challenges before. As my visit to the Strigas home concludes, I ask Sotiris how he manages to cope with the difficulties of living in today’s Greece.

“It’s chaotic…but that’s not bad, though it may seem so to ‘westerners’.”

“Things grow out of the chaos. If you don’t go Greek, you’ll go nuts. But before you know it, you’ve gone native.”

Finally, Sotiris reminds me that the festive holiday coincides with the olive-picking season.

Back in the village, on land that nurtured generations of Strigas, olives from 200 trees are ready to be gathered. The almost timeless ritual begins again. In this holiday season there is work to do.