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A close-up of the Liquid Amber tree before it lost its leaves. (Photo by Constance Constant)
Most reluctantly we turned our clocks back again and we’ve adjusted to pitch darkness at 5 in the afternoon – a sure sign of winter.
Chilling drafts fill the air, even here in Southern California. Our neighbor’s Liquid Amber tree’s bright green leaves now shimmer in dazzling scarlet, then fall like autumn leaves in New England and Michigan.
When Earth’s northern hemisphere anticipates winter, falling leaves, ruby-red cranberries, and melomakarona come to mind.
A very dear friend, born in Illinois, but who lived his childhood years trapped in a mountainous, Peloponnesian village – during the Nazi-occupation – often shares his astonishing memories of a menaced-by-war childhood. Harrowing recollections of World War II in Greece are revealed, yet they are often substituted by his pleasant recollections of primeval, natural, centuries-old, village traditions.
Every year, he recalls an old proverb about the coming of winter he learned as a kid in the village. The proverb relates, in chronological order, saints’ feast days at the start of December: ‘Ee Agia Varvara milise, o Savas aploeethe, o Agios Nikolas erhete, ta hionia fortomenos.” St. Barbara (December 4th) is followed by St. Savas (December 5th), then St. Nicholas on December 6th. The ‘ditty’ introduces December and winter: “St. Barbara spoke, Savas answered, St. Nicholas comes, loaded down with snow.”
During WWII, food was severely scarce; fear of the enemy was prevalent. Yet glimmers of light in the human spirit never gave up hope for the end of vicious, dominating violence. Villagers still anticipated Christmas, perhaps without traditional melomakarona cookies, but with fervent prayers for peace and an end to suffering.
Villagers attended revered liturgies in humble churches to praise and honor the heroic deeds of early December-honored saints. By month’s end they rejoiced in Christ’s birth and hopeful ‘good news’ of love and peace for all humankind. Nearing the 31st, they awaited the coming of good St. Basil on January 1st, and wished each other ‘Eftiheesmeno to Neo Etos’ (Happy New Year), along with wishes for the continuation of their own earthly lives: “Kai tou hronou” (And, again, next year).
Village homes, then, lacked electricity for easy lighting, thus no radio either for outside-the-community news. Villagers’ lives were governed by survival, hard work, nature, tolling church bells, changing seasons, the Church calendar, local word of mouth, the sun and moon. Women, especially, knew saints’ feast days, fasting days, and other holidays by heart, without checking calendars, usually nonexistent in deprived 1940s wartime. Clocks, considered luxuries, were not found in most homes.
The ‘kambana’ (church bell) and religious holidays aided in identifying day and month. Without meteorological equipment, seasoned farmers forecast the weather by estimating air temperatures on their faces and comprehending the significance of moving cloud formations. By observing the sun’s position in the sky and shadows which were cast on surrounding fields, mountains, and countrysides, villagers knew season, month, and estimated time of day.
Spring was time to prepare fields, plant crops, and gloriously celebrate Pascha, the Feast of Feasts. Summer demanded sweat and backbreaking labor to cultivate fields. Yet summer was pleasantly rewarding when picking and savoring luscious, fresh fruits only available in summertime. During autumn’s harvest, my friend recalls, the villagers of Mount Parnon gathered walnuts, olives, and vineyard bounty.
Winter provided a deserved rest from working the fields. In homes without electricity or central heating, keeping home fires burning was time-consuming but vital. Roasting chestnuts, curling up at night into thick, itchy wool home-woven blankets, and excitedly looking forward to Christmas and New Year’s were winter delights, along with anticipating – the distant arrival of spring.
Before the mid-20th century, Greek village life demanded a true balance with nature. The four seasons were uniquely respected and celebrated with incredibly hard labor and a generous, appreciative cooperation with nature. It’s no surprise ‘ecology’ is a Greek word. As always when December starts, in village or city, shorter daylight hours and cooler weather foretell winter’s arrival in most of Earth’s northern hemisphere.
In our neighborhood a, now bare, scarlet-leafed Liquid-Amber tree is our natural harbinger of winter. It forecasts extraordinary holidays when, hopefully, we will enjoy the company of family and friends; repeat and pass on warm, family Christmas traditions, like decorating with lights and savoring delectable melomakarona while embracing the ‘light’ in a 2,000-year-old message for humankind – peace, goodwill, truth, love, and kindness when we interact with each other.
Writer Constance M. Constant has also authored two books: Austin Lunch, Greek-American Recollections (Cosmos Publishing, 2005): and American Kid, Nazi-Occupied Greece Through a Child’s Eyes (Year of the Book, 2016).
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