My children on our island.
Here is a holiday present. It is a chapter describing our first Christmas in Greece. It was becoming a fierce winter on the island but we had a lovely Christmas anyway.
We were glad we had finally put our foot down about the roof repairs for the rains settled in with a vengeance. For five or six days downpours would alternate with heavy drizzle. We had finally bought a small kerosene heater. The mildew had threatened to take over if we didn’t get the place warm and the tiny fireplace in the corner of the bedroom wasn’t up to the job.
The week before Christmas an arctic cold spell set in. The rain became sleet and even occasional snow. The water on the path to town froze and the goat track which doubled as a stream bed in the rains, became a river of ice and dangerous to navigate. We managed to get to Nikki’s house one afternoon to check on her and Agapitos. They were surviving well but Nikki told us it was the coldest winter she could remember.
We kept the children warm and entertained at home and took it in turns to brave the trip to the village as we made our Christmas preparations.
There were no Christmas trees. The Greeks prized their trees and would never sacrifice one for a single occasion, but they did prune their cypresses and used the boughs as decorations even though it was still a relatively new custom. We pruned a couple large acacia trees in front of our house for our “tree”. The large boughs we cut were still covered with tiny yellow balls of blossom and it looked as though it were already decorated. The kids made decorations out of bread dough we dried and painted.
I searched the village for wrapping paper. It didn’t exist. I finally unearthed some colored art paper in a tiny shop and bought the entire supply. There were few toys on the island and the ones we found were shoddily made and expensive. There was no income tax in Greece. Instead anything imported was taxed. Most Greek children didn’t have toys, but improvised their own playthings except for marbles which were very popular. We found a supply of ceramic ones but never could find the large playing marbles made out of Parian marble that some of the village children had. We couldn’t talk any of them into selling us one of theirs; they were too highly prized.
Instead we made toys for the children. David made a periscope and set of stilts. I sewed stuffed animals and toys. I had noticed that there were very few dolls around. In some houses we had noticed some very fancy and expensive Italian made dolls set on a mantel as an ornament in the place of honor, but never had we seen children playing with dolls. I decided to make all the children we knew rag dolls and spent many evenings on the project working by lamplight.
Tom and Nancy were spending the holidays in Athens but we invited Brett and Anna up for Christmas Eve dinner. We would go to their house on Christmas Day if the path was passable. The weather had warmed slightly so the ice melted but the evening was stormy when Brett and Anna toiled up the mountain and the wind was blowing a gale.
I had cooked a special dinner making as many traditional things as I could using our gas burner and small camping oven. We had roast chicken, stuffing, yams and such set out. We had just sat down when we heard a voice hailing us through the wind. David opened the door in the teeth of the howling gale and shouted, “Yia sou, ela …come in.”
Dimitri emerged from the dark, dripping wet and chilled. It had been three weeks since our last visit and he had missed us. He had heard that Christmas was a big celebration with the foreigners and had braved the storm to share it with us. Brett and Anna had met him briefly before but didn’t really know him. We sat him by the tiny brush fire and wanted to give him a shot of raki to warm him but instead he pulled a bottle of aged Metaxa brandy from his coat, a special potable indeed.
By the end of dinner everyone was very jolly. We all sang Christmas carols while David played a recorder. Dimitri sat back grinning happily, thoroughly enjoying himself. We tried translating some of the carols into Greek for him but Greeks love talking so much that they would never use one syllable where five will do. Even “Oh, Christmas tree” came out “Oh kristouganiatiko denthra” a mouthful of syllables we couldn’t squeeze into the tune. When I told him the legend of Good King Wenceslas he was utterly delighted. Dimitri loved a good story.
We finally tucked the kids into bed after answering Heather’s question about if Santa Claus had a black mustache in Greece instead of a white beard. We didn’t think so. The children safely asleep, we began to fill the stockings by the fireplace. Dimitri was instantly alert
“What are you doing?”
“This is an American custom. We put candies and little gifts in the stockings for the children to find in the morning when they wake up.”
He was charmed, “But that is wonderful.”
He insisted on adding some of his hard earned coins. He was equally charmed when he saw me wrap the last of the gifts in colored paper.
We invited him to stay the night rather than ride back to Marathi in the storm. He consented and Brett and Anna bid us all good-night, inviting him to the next day’s feast. We gave him our sleeping bags.
In the morning he was gone before we woke up. The storm was over and the sun shone.
We had just finished opening our presents when Nikos the Barber and Tarsa walked in. They had come up the hill bringing walnuts and cakes. Nikos also carried a great basket full of oranges. I was sitting on our bed with Heather and Davidaki and he walked up to us and turned the basket upside-down over our heads, showering us with the fruit. The children laughed and the beautiful oranges rolled everywhere. I knew how Papoo’s cousin must have felt when he had presented her with an abundance of fruit.
We took a walk later distributing the gifts we had made for all our friends. We had bought Nikki a fancy coffee set and she insisted on making some coffee for us in it and serving us in her new cups.
At Spiros and Eleni’s house I gave their little girl a rag doll. Her eyes lit up when she saw it and she hugged it immediately. But then over my protests and her sorrow Eleni took it away and propped it up on the mantel next to a huge, elegantly gowned Italian doll. All the dolls I made the children suffered the same fate.