An Athenian Christmas

It’s about the people you love, not the things you are told to love



By Omaira Gill (Words of Wisdom)

Published: Wed 25 Dec 2013, 8:52 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:12 PM

Christmas preparations are in full swing in Athens. As with most other occasions here, things tend to start off slowly before building into a frenzied climax of last-minute activity and panic. The closer it gets to Christmas, the more manic the city gets and shops and markets heave with swaths of people running around because they left everything to the last minute. So far so Christmassy.

But what you won’t see here are the scenes of consumeristic chaos that make the news every year when people storm the stores to buy up mountains of mass-produced plastic and the latest, must-have Christmas toy.

It is a blessing that Christmas in Greece has never been a particularly consumeristic affair, even before the crisis. Neither is it a particularly religious one. For all the bell-tolling church on every corner neighbourhood layouts and no one daring to start anything new (the school year, the signing in of a new prime minister or the opening of a new company) without a priest to bless it, you won’t find the churches packed here on a Sunday.

What Christmas in Greece is about though is taking time to get the family together and eat well. Greeks love two things — food and talking, and a place and time where they get to do both sends them into a flurry of excited turkey-buying where you invite 10 people, cook for 20 and seat everyone around a table meant for six.

Presents are lazily exchanged, some before Christmas, some after, and children do not expect to wake up to an enormous stack of presents on Christmas morning.

Shopping events in the rest of the Western world, like America’s Black Friday which has, rather unfortunately, been borrowed now by the UK, extract a kind of baffled amazement here. They are covered on the news by bemused commentators, and watched by head-shaking viewers who can’t understand how anyone could be driven to such a mania of shopping that didn’t involve a lamb or a turkey.

Greeks who had been to the UK or US for Christmas would ask me, “But why do they need to buy so much?” to which I honestly had no reply and I still don’t now, without launching into a quasi-Marxist monologue about the evils of consumerism.

It might be a symptom of the societies that didn’t suffer through the two World Wars on the scale that others on the continent did, followed by a civil war and then a refugee crisis for good measure, that you take comfort in things and are happy to buy into the myth of Christmas meaning presents.

In Greece, the cumulative effect of so much suffering is that if you could get through all of that alive, you were doing pretty well. You learn pretty quickly that happiness can’t be found at the bottom of a Christmas stocking.

When I would be complaining about my first-world problems to my husband’s grandmother, God bless her soul, she would clamp my arm with surprising strength for her 99 years, look into my eyes and say, “If you have your health, you need nothing else.” She would then give a satisfied nod before shuffling away to my mother-in-law’s house to which she was forcibly decamped each winter from her own home in central Greece.

This was a woman who had, more than once in her life, walked away with absolutely nothing other than the clothes on her back, with two small children in tow and no idea how to feed them, let alone where they would sleep that night. This country is full of stories like hers.

So Greece may be drowning in problems, but it is still nice to live in a place where Christmas really is about the people you love and not the things you have been told you must love.

All of this though is nothing compared to the all-out party of the year that is Easter, but that’s a story for another time.

Omaira Gill is a freelance journalist based in Athens


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