Wednesday, December 28, 2011


So Christmas Day has been and gone, and the festivities are over for another year.
Or are they?
There is a saying that has always amused me: 'It ain't over till the Fat Lady sings'.
Opinion is divided on the origin of this colourful saying. There are those who attribute it to American sports journalism, but where did it originally come from? On that, everyone seems to agree. It refers to the final, ten minute-long aria that comes at the close of the fourteen hour-long Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner, an aria which is delivered by the massively buxom Brunnhilde.

Here in Greece, the Fat Lady doesn't sing until 7th January, having begun her aria on 4th December - a whole month of festivals and celebrations.

Saint Barbara opens the ceremonies on 4th December, while  6th December is the day associated with Saint Nicholas, an early-Christian saint born in what was then part of Greece but is now in  Turkey. He is the patron saint of a surprisingly motley group of people - children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, prostitutes, repentant thieves, archers, pharmacists and pawnbrokers. In the Balkans and some parts of Western Europe, his connection with children and his reputation for leaving gifts for people, led to him becoming the original Santa Claus - the name being derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.In  the depiction below, it is easy to see the connection.

In Corfu, we have the name-day of our own Saint Spyridon on 12 December. It's a day when the whole of Corfu takes to the road from early morning, in order to squeeze in as many house-calls as possible, to visit their friends called Spyros or Spyridoula, to deliver gifts of sweet cakes and liquor and flowers, to be forced in turn to consume cakes and spirits at each house. Meanwhile, the pharmacists are giving thanks to St Nicholas, their own patron saint, and checking their stocks of Maalox and Gaviscon in preparation for the massive pan-Hellenic attack of indigestion that is about to commence.
Joking apart, St Spyridon was a beautiful man, known for his compassion to others, so pure in heart that more than 1700 years after his death his body remains incorrupt and is believed to have miraculous powers.

The pantheon of saints-days continues throughout December and well into January, its highlight being Christmas, when we celebrate the Birth of Christ. St Stephen, the first  Christian martyr and well-known to  the British for his mention in the second line of the carol 'Good King Wenceslas' is commemorated on 26th December -  though in the Orthodox church his name day falls on 27th. Don't ask me why - it's all to do with Julian and Gregorian calendars. Here is a suitably jolly karaoke version of the much-loved carol!

New Year's Day sees the celebration of the name day of St. Vassilis (Basil), one of the founders of the Christian church. In Greece, many people still give  presents to their children on this day rather than at Christmas, which, traditionally,. has always been a quiet and simple religious celebration. Things get rowdier at New Year however, with parties and dancing and, for a reason too complicated to go into here, gambling. It is considered lucky to see the New Year in with gambling, and entire families, old  and young, play cards and cut the Vassilopita together according to a strict protocol of who gets which piece - one of which contains a coin. Preferably gold, but hey - who's complaining? Agios Vassilis also provides us with several fine examples of the merging of pagan and Christian belief.
The crammed calendar of name days begins to thin out after early January, with the Epiphany  on 6th January  and on 7th January, St. John the Baptist's day.

These are the great winter festivals, each with its own colourful and impressive rituals that have come down to us in some cases from pre-Christian times..
Epiphany, for example, is celebrated by Greek Orthodox communities all over the world with the tradition whereby young males leap into a body of water to retrieve a crucifix. Here the frontiers between pagan and Christian practices blur, for while Epiphany represents the time when Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan, and the Great Blessing of the Waters took place, it marks the end of the traditional ban on sailing, as the wild winter seas are cleansed of the mischief-prone "kalikántzaroi", the goblins that try to torment God-fearing Christians through the festive season. In many countries, of course, 6th January represents Twelfth Night.

But WHO is Father Christmas? Saint Nicholas hands out gifts but so too does Saint Vassilis. Although modern cynics remind us that the Coca-Cola Company is responsible, since the nineteen-thirties, for the image of an overweight, alarmingly red-cheeked (did anyone check his blood pressure?) old man in a startling red suit, both saints have been depicted wearing robes of great opulence and colour, including crimson. Both distribute gifts to the poor and the needy as well as to children. They are Christian saints but they came from a part of the world not noted for Christianity. They are known by many names, some of them similar to Santa Claus.
Father Christmas seems to represent a universal need for love, kindness and charity.
He may not be politically correct in some countries where the edicts of cold-hearted bureaucrats, do-gooders and killjoys prevail over good sense. He may be an advertising agency's dream. But he is also the dream of children and the young at heart, everywhere.

Back, for a moment, to The Fat Lady, courtesy of that remarkable artist Beryl Cook.


As you can see, she wears purple and is kind to her cat. Any other resemblance between her and the author of this blog is purely wishful-thinking.



  1. I thought I might add a bit about the gambling. In many places around Corfu, notably Mandouki, Koulines and Lefkimmi on New Year's Day you will see gatherings of men. They are most likely playing "t'apsilou" probably the simplest form of gambling there is. What they are doing is betting on the toss of a coin...
    And also (and you will probably hate me for this, but I couldn't resist...) This year sales of Maalox rocketed but it wasn't because Greeks were suddenly eating even more. Rather the opposite. Maalox is used to combat the effects of teargas... So as more and more teargas is used to keep the hungry off the streets, the Maalox dealer must be rubbing his hands...his on a winner there!!


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