It began when an outraged friend called me. “Have you seen the thing that purports to be a Christmas tree that the municipality has erected in Ioannina?” she spluttered. “It’s a cubist nightmare.”
As a matter of fact, I had seen pictures of it just minutes before and was enthralled. Comprised of sundry steel bars juxtaposed against each other so as to imply the branches of a Christmas tree, it was more of a constructivist’s erotic dream, eerily reminiscent of the sweeping curves caused by the geometric shapes, in its evocation of Vladimir Tatlin’s design for the Petrograd Monument to the Third International. Sadly, Tatlin’s Monument was never built and soon after, the Bolshevik aesthetic turned from the avant garde to the socialist realism of Stalinist neoclassicism. Inversely, in Ioannina, an Ottoman town, boasting Byzantine buildings, neoclassicism was now being rejected in favour of soviet constructivism. I found this process breathtaking, and said so.
“You know it serves them right,” my friend’s diatribe continued, unabated. “These Greeks of Greece have lost all of their traditions. The Christmas tree itself is a western import that fits ill with the Greek psyche. No wonder that they take absurd artistic liberties with its form. They should display a boat, not a tree, at Christmas.”
If there is one part of the motherland where a Christmas tree is more fitting that a boat, then surely that is mountainous northern Greece. If the Epirots were to feature a Christmas boat, then surely it would have to be one of those low-riding canoe-cum longships, depicted by orientalist artist Louis Dupré that were once used to convey the infamous and prone to reclining Ali Pasha through, not Lake Pamvotis, as most inhabitants of Ioannina believe, but rather, Lake Lapsista, which no longer exists, as it has been drained. The Ioannitans generally deny that Lake Lapsista ever existed, which is cited by my friend as evidence of the historical and cultural dementia of the modern Greek. The Ioannitans, like all other Greeks, also seem to believe that the Greeks of down-under celebrate Christmas by the beach, a source of ever-lasting wonder to them.
Dementia or no, the village Epirots still retain tree-themed Christmas customs, generally involving parading through the streets bearing lit tree branches which crackle and sizzle, scaring the kallikantzaroi and the municipal fire brigade. In Ioannina, the populace would carry bay leaves to throw into the fireplaces of those to whom they sought (literally) to convey Christmas greetings.
Having learned about this charming custom after spending my first Christmas in Greece, the Greek equivalent to bringing one’s own supply of beer to an Australian Christmas party, I resolved to transport it to Australia. None of us had fireplaces, it was the height of summer and when, adapting to local conditions, I threw a heap of bay leaves on my great-uncles’ barbeque while he was cooking chops, I earned a prodigious clout on the head, for though he was from Samos, a place where Christmas customs are not unknown, he had long forgotten them and concentrated instead on his superpower, which was, the ability to sense when a relative was coming to drop in unannounced at Christmas half an hour earlier, and to manage to have the barbeque lit and the chops cooking five minutes prior to their arrival.
“But that is the point,” my friend argued when treated to my reminisces. “We make conscious efforts to retain our customs in this country. The dehellenised Graeculoi of Greece do not.”
When my father was a boy, growing up in Melbourne in the fifties, Christmas comprised of my grandfather taking him via the tram to the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl, to listen to the Carols by Candelight. Going to church was inconvenient owing to a paucity of public transport and so did not feature in the migrant celebrations at all, which consisted, primarily, of a barbeque. My grandmother, an epicurean who held strong convictions about denying oneself none of the pleasures of life, would make kourabiedes throughout the year. By the time I arrived on the scene, these progressively became so dry that eating more than one seriously placed one in peril of having all of their bodily fluids sucked out of them, just the thing for a hot Australian summer Christmas.
It was my mother, and my uncle, later arrivals who, upon marrying into the family and having respectively spent their first Christmases with the (to their horror) no-frills Kalimnioi, set about re-hellenising Christmas. My uncle constructed a wood oven in his backyard. All of a sudden, the traditional Samian Christmas fare of stuffed lamb shoulder made its presence upon our table. My mother introduced the family to melomakarona, (and Christmas fried rice) and my cousins and I introduced the compulsory singing of the generic Greek Christmas carols we learned at Greek school. As this custom proved to be quite lucrative, my uncle decided to put our show on the road. For a few years, we would spend Christmas Eve in the back of his van, driving around town, being trundled out at Samian households in order to perform the generic carols, (my grandmother tried to teach us some native Samian carols, involving Saint Basil being barred from entering a village because he couldn’t give the countersign, but for some reason the other Samians kept interjecting with their own lyrics) thus raising much needed capital in order to pay off the Samian Brotherhood’s clubhouse, which was sold recently. After a while, my cousins and I realised that our material was stale and at a general meeting, resolved to disband before we lost our coveted artistic integrity. I don’t think my uncle has ever forgiven us.
Nonetheless, my childhood Greek-Australian Christmas Day mainly consisted of: Opening presents under the Christmas tree, taking the obligatory calls from Greece, going to relatives’ houses to eat barbecued meat and then, while the adults went torpid in the aftermath of their feeding frenzy, and playing cricket in the backyard.
“Yet we still maintain the richness of our traditional heritage,” my friend insisted.
Somewhere along the line, we began to attend church on Christmas Day, and were seen as dangerous innovators. Moreover, we began to fast in the lead-up to the feast and also attended the epic traditional Greek Carol extravaganza staged annually by the Archdiocese. From somewhere, I procured a model ship, festooned it with small lights and this, juxtaposed against the Christmas tree, is the mother-ship that brings the Kalimnioi out of the Christmas season and ushers in the New Year. I decorated it with the flag of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus, a short-lived state that never had a navy, at least, not until I came along.
With the corporeal manifestation of my own progeny, I began to learn the specific carols particular to my places of origin, intoning these sonorously a month prior to Christmas so that said progeny could learn them by osmosis. I objected strenuously to the practice of eating turkey, championing instead, the ritual consumption of parts of the pig and cast out from my place of abode those well-meaning Greek-Australians who sought to defile my Hellenic Christmas by pestilentially proffering a panettone. By way of atonement, I sought out and learned to make the traditional Χριστόψωμο, which, viewed from a variety perspectives, is a more eastern version of the panettone, which is why I abjure the use of raisins. There is a profusion of reindeer, elves and Santas in our home this time of year. I allow them, as the Soviets allowed Christmas trees, by way of magnanimous compromise, until such time as Communism arrives, and the State, (or in my case non-Greek Christmas customs) withers away.
At my daughter’s Greek school Christmas party recently, the children sang the «Σπάργανα,» traditional carols of Epirus. One of the mothers, recently arrived from Greece asked me what these were. I explained that traditionally, the women of the village would get together, heat a hot flat stone on the fire and make pancakes on it while singing the carol, employing the pancakes as a symbol of Jesus’ swaddling clothes.
“See what I mean?” my friend exclaimed, when I related this to her. “She is an ‘off the boater’ and like most modern Greeks, she knows nothing about our traditions.” All I could see, on the other hand, was a person desperately missing Greece, facing the prospect of spending Christmas in a strange place, away from friends and family, trying valiantly to cling on to vestiges of lore that have suddenly become relevant in a way never before expected, and seeking information about them from someone who has never experienced them and only read about them in books. I, on the other hand don’t miss Greece. Instead, I fear missing the intrusion of any other tradition that would render my Christmas, any less Greek.
I emerged the other day from the garage bearing a geometrical, spiral type contraption made out of garden wire, invoking, as I have been told later, Tatlin’s design for a Soviet suppository.
“What is that?” my wife asked, incredulously.
“This? It’s a traditional Ioannina Christmas tree,” I replied.
“Are you sure?”
“Well it is now. Where shall I put it?”
“Next to the model dug-out canoe,” she suggested.
My wife, absorbed in her internet search for Russian Christmas bread designs that could render our projected Χριστόψωμο more aesthetically pleasing, did not reply.
«Σπάργανα,» I broke the silence.
«Σπάργανα. Let’s make σπάργανα this year. It will be good.”
My wife looked up from her screen thoughtfully. “Well there is a hot plate on the barbie….”