Christmastime, or more appropriately, the ‘Dodekaimeron’ (the 12 Days) encompassing two major feast days of the Lord – Christ’s Nativity according to the flesh and Theophany – along with the feast of St. Basil the Great, always provides a special opportunity for contemplation and reflection on Hellenism’s ‘tropos’ or unique manner of being. Few Greek authors have associated their names more with this season than Alexandros Papadiamantis. His short stories and columns provide unique insight into not only this time of year, but also Greek society and its struggle to strike a balance between growing influence from the Occident, and the traditional Hellenic perspective, which bears the legacy of a centuries-old worldview and “unique otherness,” with which it ultimately enters into discourse with the rest of the world and – only then – becomes truly cosmopolitan.
His articles hail Christmas as perhaps the most quintessential family holiday – a concept often lost in its western commercialization and secularization. Even the concept of gift-giving, which is traditionally conducted on St. Basil’s Day (January 1st), reinforces this principle by further reducing the materialistic footprint upon Christmas. In an age where so many ‘conventional’ ideas are being ‘canceled’, our Community would do well to adopt this one particular break with the mainstream, opting to exchange gifts on January 1.
Papadiamantis equally magnifies the feast of Theophany and the sanctification of all creation through the immersion of the Holy Cross in the waters. His accounts include references to sailors, who would wait until January 6 to set sail, to ensure that the seas were ‘illuminated’. Traditionally, shopkeepers and heads of the household would throw coins in the ’sikli’ where the priests would carry the holy water on the eve of Theophany). Contrary to what some may perceive as irreverence or crudeness, this action is quite symbolic, illustrating the desire for even money to be sanctified on such a holy day – along with all creation.
However, perhaps Papadiamantis’ stories are best known for his protagonists and their flaws and shortcomings, which only help to humanize them. This is quite a far cry from the Western prototype of the ‘knight in shining armor’ or ‘superhero’. This, too, is noteworthy, because it emphasizes that although our institutions are rife with persons possessing their fair share of character flaws, this is no reason to dispense with the institutions themselves.
Papadiamantis’ tales illustrate our institutions’ importance in promoting communal existence and harmony, and the seminal concepts of ‘metanoia’ and ‘philotimo’. From a modern standpoint, his stories represent a unique response to the abrasive cancel culture movement, which seeks to tear down the collective for the sake of the individual. Instead, Papadiamantis focuses on the healing, remedying, or at the very least coexistence of the individual through, and by virtue of, the collective.
Papadiamantis’ characters overcome obstacles arising as a result of flawed judgement or unfortunate circumstances through a spirit of ‘metanoia’ – a change in thinking known in English as repentance – along with their sense of ‘philotimo’, or consciousness of their conduct ‘in relation’ to the world around them. This doesn’t mean that they have corrected themselves once and for all, or that their personal shortcomings or idiosyncracies won’t get the best of them at some point again in the future. But it does indicate that all of them – from the biggest sinner to the saintliest figure – are conscious of their humanity and look to something greater than their own microcosm to help them get their bearings straight.
This ‘compass’ is none other than the Incarnate Logos Himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the ‘Dawn of Dawns,’ as Christ is referred to in Orthodox Christian hymnography. Finding one’s bearings is known as ‘prosanatolismos’ or facing the East in Greek. Symbolically, this phrase points to the ‘Intelligible Sun of Righteousness’ – Christ.
Another clue from the Greek language that ties into Papadiamantis’ story plots is the concept of ‘synchorisis’, which translates to ‘forgiveness’, but differs semantically and philosophically to a degree from the English word. In the West, forgiveness or a pardon (from the French word ‘donner’, to give) is something that is given and suggests power distance, where the stronger party grants the weaker a pardon. This concept is rooted in Western medieval feudal society.
On the contrary, the Greek word ‘synchorisis’ or ‘sygnomi’ literally means to make room for someone or to provide space for someone else’s view. The defining feature of this concept is not the unequal distribution of power, but the collective willingness for inclusion. The group decides to steer around individual differences or disputes through inclusion in a common ‘parea’ or company.
This concept is put into practice quintessentially through participation in the Divine Liturgy and its ‘common table’ (altar) and ‘common cup’, and through the symbolic extension of this eucharistic mode of existence to other aspects of our lives. Indicatively, it was not uncommon in previous eras to see many of our forefathers eating out of a common platter and drinking out of a common cup during celebrations. Fittingly, harmony and collective co-existence are forged and manifested in everyday events, not longwinded declarations or pompous presentations.
Whether it’s Christ at the Castle, Delisyfero, or so many of Papadiamantis’ other holiday literary treasures, the prolific author offers us much to reflect upon during the Dodekaimeron. Our institutions are not exclusively characterized or stigmatized by their members, who may, by chance, be in disrepute or have erred, but rather, exist precisely for them. And our communal polity can and should not exist independently of our fellow men and women – even our rivals – for we rise and fall together.
After all, this concept lies at the very heart of the Christmas season, with the Pre-Eternal Logos deigning to don flesh and manifest the Holy Trinity for the sake of not just a select few, but all. With the Logos as the base of logic, let us take a lesson from one of his humble panegyrists and one of Hellenism’s favorite sons.
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