ATHENS – Greece a country where its people celebrate Christmas and the secular and spiritual New Year’s holidays twice. This week the substantial portion of the population that follows the Julian calendar celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany – and Vasilopitas are cut to the end of the month and beyond.
At the start of the New Year, it’s all about the light: Christmas lights tastefully decorated private and public spaces, and Epiphany here is popularly called ‘the phota – the lights”, and while sunlight is scarce, each morning we wake up to more daylight.
The focus on lights and the New Year began on December 31 as hundreds of millions around the world watch the descent of that lighted ball in Times Square and one second past midnight, the celebration of the New Year begins, extending deep into the first month.
“Happy New Year! Καλη Χρονια!” rings out annually, but this year, more than most, we are living one of those rare moments when nearly every Greek around the world is on the same wavelength – as individuals and as Hellenes – wishing one another a happy new year, exchanging gifts, per St Basil, not St. Nicholas, cutting vasilopitas, and bringing holy water from Epiphany services to bless their homes.
The 2020 wrinkle is rooted in the assessment that a new government brings a new beginning for Greece, the first steps being a final exit from the decade-long depression (yes, that is the right word for that economic and psychic reality) that darkened the perceptions about Greece among Greeks and non-Greeks alike.
Many inside and outside Greece believe the country has overcome its crisis and a celebration of sorts is merited – and it began on December 31.
On New Year’s Eve, in the wonderful cozy and artsy UPPER Cafe (Greenwich Village in Greece!), on the second floor across the street from the Greek Parliament, all the optimistic threads, personal and national, came together as dozens gathered: friends, family, and strangers spontaneously expressing good will, welcomed by owner Dimitris Georgiades and enjoying the wonderful food, drink, and music he offered.
The crowd included Greek-Americans and non-Greeks and while the music was mainly American, it was a Greek spirit that permeated the night, Dimitris’ welcome received like a candle promising joy by each of the guests, his classic Greek philoxenia a lamp burning even brighter as the night unfolded, fueled by the passion of the Upper House Band, the elegant jazz and standards stylings of vocalist and pianist Jenny Chatzopoulou, the wild sax of George Kastanos, Periklis Biskinis on fire on keyboards, and Nikos Martziokas on percussion.
Jenny and the band made it a night of non-stop celebration and anticipation of a brighter future for everyone in Greece.
The joy of the second Epiphany is accompanied by some wistfulness if not sadness on the part of the rest of the population, however, because most of the Christmas lights that in recent years have turned Athens into the Mediterranean version of a winter wonderland have all but disappeared by then, but as The National Herald reported in our Christmas insert, it’s always Christmas at the Noel bar in Athens Centre – and Santa Clause is belatedly sending UPPER a brand new piano!