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Greek-American Stories: About the Holidays

‘Tis the season to be jolly. (Well, do the best you can) I doubt we’ll get any snow. It all went to Buffalo (6 feet of it!) Anyway, it’s never too late to prepare for that tedious time of year, the season for gift-giving, merriment and joy, choosing the right gift. There’s always someone like Theia Maria who, when presented with a gift, studies the size and shape first, as if trying to guess what could be inside the box; animal, vegetable or mineral, while we wait.  After inspecting the wrapping she, carefully, removes the bow that is placed gently aside as if it might get damaged, and then she heaves a sigh like that was a real chore. Then, the unwrapping would take a doctor less time to remove an appendix. She then shakes the box, smells it and looks around, smiling, enjoying the avid attention. By this time I’m wishing it ticked! Several minutes of unwrapping like it might contain something dangerous, she lifts the cover and peers inside. And finally, a sigh. A pair of fur-lined slippers emerges. Did she like them? We’ll never know. With a weak smile, she’ll whisper a humble ‘thank you!’ and set it aside like she needed rest from the ordeal.

Then my grandson, Sebastian has to be nudged. (He’s on his cell phone.) Looking up, as if just recalling that it was Christmas, he unwraps his gift.  He smiles sincerely, and appears really happy when he sees the navy blue woolen sweater and leather driving gloves. “Oh, wow! They’re great! Thanks, Yiayia and Papou.” He’ll then set them aside and then go back to his original occupation, his cell phone.  (End of communication – until dinner time). But, I thank Zeus that here in the U.S. Christmas lasts a day. I couldn’t take the Christmas celebrations in Greece that last 14 days starting with Christmas Eve and ending on the Epiphany, January 6, with the ‘Great Blessings of the Water’. This tradition is done here, too. But, the waters around here aren’t like in Greece. So, Tetanus shots are in order when coming out. Of course, if you happen to have retrieved the cross, you’re exempt.(?) Some traditions, however, began with the Ottoman era, like the Christopsomo, a round loaf of bread that’s eaten on the night of Christmas Eve. My yiayia made Melomakarona and Vasilopita with a coin in it, a tradition since antiquity because the main ingredients, oil, honey, oranges and nuts are plentiful in Greece.

Then, carols, Kalanta, are sung and kids appear at doors starting from 7 am. the lyrics warn that Ayios Vasilis is coming. The kids usually get a coin or two for luck and, maybe, a cookie. But, how do they do it with high rise buildings? (Look out belo-o-w!)

Then, we have the men do ‘card playing’, a tradition that begins early in the evening and ends by midnight. Also, lottery tickets are given in the hope of getting ‘lucky’. But, traditionally, gifts are given on New Year’s Day in the hope that the new year will be  better than last year. Mostly, however, money is given. What smart Greeks! No shoot- outs for a parking space, no standing on line for refunds, and no searching for a cashier. Then, the Vasilopita, named after the most prominent person in our religion; Ayios Vasilis who actually began the gift-giving tradition when, during Turkish occupation, families were too poor to give dowries to young girls of marriageable age. This Saintly man, secretly, placed gold coins in woolen stockings and left them in open windows or in doorways where the families would discover them in the morning.

The tradition of Christmas trees and decorating them was introduced to Greece in 1833 when Bavarian Prince Otto ruled (1832 -1862) in his palace on Naftplio. But, it is believed Germany had that tradition during those same years and spread it to other countries. Almost every Christian country celebrates Christmas. New Year’s Eve has a variety of traditions, all according to their history. There’s something very special about the holidays, however. Whether it is children’s anticipation of gifts, or adults being with family, the days and hours from dusk till dawn, the special season is cherished around the world. I wish, sincerely, that ALL children in every country, whatever the religion or condition politically, could enjoy the coming holidays with joy, health and love.

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