Sunday, December 29, 2013

X-Mas and Friends in Greece!

It may be after Christmas, but in many countries the holidays are still well under way. Today, I’m writing about another traditionally Christian country, this one Greek Orthodox. Yes, Greece is traditionally Christian. The time of the twelve gods of Mount Olympus has long since passed. But I recommend you look into Saturnalia, the Roman festival which is the source for many Christmas traditions. Because we all know how much the Romans loved to rip off the Greeks. Our final holiday post in brought to you with help from Katherine Zaimes, of Steve’s Pizza fame. Let’s all give her a round of applause!
But before we get into that, here's a recap of the festive nations we've visited so far.
Day 1: Nate Presenting Thailand
Day 2: Hannah Presenting Switzerland
Day 3: Holly Presenting Burkina Faso
Day 4: Nate Presenting Japan
Day 5: Hannah Presenting Basque Country
Day 6: Holly Presenting Brazil
Day 7: Holy Presenting the Netherlands
Day 8: Hannah Presenting the United Kingdom
Day 9: Nate Presenting Mexico
Day 10: Holly Presenting Germany
Day 11: Hannah Presenting the Dominican Democratic Republic of the Congo

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk that jolly old elf that with the round belly that's the star of the Christmas season, Santa Claus. In her post on the Netherlands, Holly mentioned the Dutch character Sint. Sinterklaas is the origin of the Santa Claus character famous in American culture, but where did Sinterklaas come from?
What if I told you he was based on a real person?
That's right, Santa Claus is real. Your parents lied to you about lying to you about him being real. Double lie!
You remember that pimpin' bishop's hat Sint was wearing in Holly's pictures? Yeah, Saint Nicholas, the inspiration for Sinterklasas, was totally a bishop. He was a Greek living in what is today Turkey around the 400s. He’s the patron saint of many things, one of which is children, but another of which is sailors. So, technically, “I’m On a Boat” by the Lonely Island is a Christmas carol, and you are encouraged to go door-to-door singing it. Legends abound about the awesome things Saint Nick got up to. One of them was in instance wherein he saved three people, likely children, from being sold as meat by a butcher. Another was the legend of a poor man who could not afford a dowry for his three daughters, meaning they would likely remain unmarried and have to turn to prostitution to support themselves. Saint Nicholas, on three separate nights, tossed bags of money into the man’s house through a window so he could afford the dowry. One version states that on the third night, he dropped it down the chimney! That’s so Santa.
            So whatever happened to Saint Nicholas? Well, that was a millennium and a half ago. He’s dead now. Where he lived is now the modern town of Demre, Turkey, which honors him with a statue donated by the Russians. Some incredibly smart individual decided to replace that statue with a plastic Santa Claus one year. That didn’t go over well at all, and the original statue has been returned. But maybe you still don’t believe me. You’ve been watching a lot of movies, and refuse to believe someone is dead until you’ve seen the body. That’s fine, you can see his relics, what’s left of his body, by visiting the city of Bari in Italy. A perfect Christmas activity: seeing Santa’s dead body.
            Saint Nicholas’s Day is December 6th, which is also the name day for anyone named Nick, Nikki, anything like that. As Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors, there will be festivities aboard most ships, whether they’re at sea on in port. Regarding name days, they are the days commemorating whatever saint one is named after. In Greece, one’s name day is more important than their birthday, and there’s many name days celebrated around the Christmas holidays.
            In Greece, the religious aspect of Christmas takes on much more significance than the commercial aspect. Where in the United States, we prepare for Christmas with a month or more of shopping, Greek Christmas is preceded with 40 days of fasting. During this fast, meat is not eaten. Katherine says that the purpose of this is preparing your body and soul for the holidays.
            There is a folklore tradition in Greece during the holidays. Just as the Netherlands has their Black Pete and Germany has their Krampus, Greece has “gremlin” or “goblin” like creatures. In Greek, they are called Kalikantzaroi, and those guys are jerks. For twelve days (the twelve days of Christmas, December 25th to January 6th) they come into the house to cause terror and to steal things. Katherine’s grandmother would tell her and the other children scary stories of these creatures, the likes of which surpass Hollywood movies. Step up your game, Paranormal Activity! According to legend, and Wikipedia, for the rest of the year they stay underground sawing at the World tree. They are about to saw the final part off until, suddenly, Christmas! They can’t resist making merriment during the most festive time of year, so they come to the surface. Or it has something to do with the movement of the sun, I can’t remember. Anyway, when they head back underground they find the tree has healed itself, and they have to start over again. But if they ever succeed, the world will collapse. And that’s terrible.
            Also according to internet resources, there is a method to repel the Kalikantzaroi from one’s home. A shallow wooden bowl is kept with a piece of wire suspended on the rim. On that wire is wooden cross with a sprig of basil wrapped around it. There’s usually water in the bowl to keep the basil fresh. Once a day a member of the family, typically the mother, will dip the cross and the basil into holy water, and with it sprinkle each room of the house. Of course, if that fails, I would just use a shotgun. You get a really nice spread with a shotgun, you could probably take out like two or three Kalikantzaroi in one shot.
            I’m joking, of course. Christmas isn’t shotgun time. You’ll shoot your eye out. But it is a time for caroling! On the Eves of Christmas and New Year’s, children will carol from house to house. Usually the children will be given some coins by the residents, so that the children will have extra spending money for the holidays. Not that there would be many places to spend it, as most shops would be closed by the 23rd. Some would open up around the 27th, but for anything major, you’d have to wait until at least January 3rd. People generally save up money during this time for a special outfit to wear to church, as just about everyone wants to look their best during the holiday season.
            Christmas is a big day for families. Around 5 AM families will attend mass, after which they will go for breakfast to the homes of the grandparents, or the oldest aunt or uncle. There is a tremendous emphasis on family gatherings in during the holidays. People will get together with parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, even sometimes third cousins! Houses will typically be full of people during the holidays. And what will the people be full of? Food.
            Since the holidays follow the long period of fasting, naturally much meat is eaten. Pork is the most popular, as it a great deal cheaper than beef. Some other dishes included spinach pies (spanakopita), cheese pies (turopita), and other pies made with phyllo dough pastry. There are other special cookies and sweets prepared, such as Melomakarona (honey-dipped cookies) and Kourabies (which are supposedly like Russian cookies). Lastly, there is a special sweet bread eaten on New Year’s Day, cut into a number of pieces equal to the number of people in the house at the time. Each person gets a slice. In one slice is a coin, and whoever gets the coin will have extra good luck for the new year.
How has this not caught on in Wisconsin?
            Speaking of New Year’s Day, that day is the day on which gifts are exchanged. Though some households are being influenced by the “Western” (as in West European/American) culture and will also exchange gifts on December 25th. January 1st is also St. Basil’s Day, so in addition to the gift giving there is a great deal of other celebrating going on.
            The Epiphany is the last day of Christmas in many cultures. For Catholics and Protestants, mainly, it is seen as a commemoration mostly for the visit of Magi to baby Jesus. For Eastern Christians, including Greek Orthodox, it commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. In Greece, there will be church services, with the priests blessing all waters. There is a tradition of throwing a large metal cross into sea water on this day. Whoever dives in and retrieves the cross will receive extra blessings from the priest, as well as the honor of the community. What makes this particularly challenging is that this is the middle of winter, so the sea waters are very cold.
            In the area that Katherine’s family is from, St. John’s Day is very special. This falls on January 7th. There are local traditions commemorating the day, such as folk dancing. Food and wine are also in abundance.
            One more thing that Katherine wanted to share. Before being influenced by traditions from west of Greece, houses would usually decorate small wooden boats are ships for Christmas. This stems from 3/4s of the country being surrounded by water, and the sea being such an important element of people’s lives. This tradition is still carried on in households on the islands.
            Katherine says that she misses the social and spiritual aspects of Christmas in Greece, which is understandable considering the stresses that Christmas shopping and other commercial aspects of the holiday here in the US can bring. Here family gatherings can be especially troublesome considering just how large of a county the United States really is.
Santa will bring the joy of commercial Christmas insanity to you yet, Greece.
            We will wrap up our discussion of Greek Christmas with holiday greetings. “Kala Hristougenna” is Merry Christmas in Greek. Friends and family will also greet each other with hugs and kisses and “Hronia Polla”, meaning to live many years. In frat house letters, those are written “Καλα Χριστουγεννα” and “Χρονια Πολλα”.

            So that’s the end of our holiday series. I really hope you enjoyed it, because Hannah and Holly told me that doing this series has made them hate Christmas. And that’s terrible.
            Speaking of them, Hannah will continue to serve you as a Writing Intern for Spring 2014. Holly will not be returning as Marketing & Outreach Intern, and neither will I. I know you’ll miss us both, but don’t fret! We’ll continue bringing you the occasional blog post as Education Abroad Ambassadors next semester. I have some blog posts already started for you to look forward to, including the fabled “McDonald’s Abroad” post, as well as a post about what studying abroad in Thailand is really like. Finally, in a few days I will be leaving to explore Japan for a couple of weeks. I’ll definitely be reporting on my experiences there on this blog here.
Thanks for reading!
Καλα Χριστουγεννα και Χρονια Πολλα!

Update: Katherine sent me the following video:

Also, here's some pictures she sent me that I didn't originally make it into the post.

This is a special bread made just for Christmas.
Merry belated Candlemas!

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