|The Russians call these 'ear-hats'!|
Monday, December 17, 2012
THE SANTA CLAUS HAT
For many of us here in Corfu, this may not be the jolliest Christmas ever, but as long as you can see at least one person wearing a Santa Claus hat, all is not lost!
I started writing this long overdue blog on 12th December, the name day of Corfu’s Patron Saint, St Spyridon. For many people this has always been considered the start of the winter holiday season which continues until 6th January and Epiphany followed by 7th January and the Feast of St John. In Corfu, you are unlikely to see much in the way of festive decorations or events before this day, and most of the preparations – baking and buying presents and decorating a tree or, traditional in Greece, a small boat, takes place in the last few days before Christmas. Not for us the TV and retail campaigns that start in October. Our winter holiday season is not all about Christmas either; it is only in comparatively recent years that much has been made of it, as Christmas has always been considered as an entirely religious festival. Merrymaking and present-giving traditionally took place at New Year, on the Feast of St Basil (Vassilis). In fact, Greek children are promised that Agios Vassilis will bring their presents. If you look at a picture of that Saint you will not, however, see a remarkable resemblance to the accepted idea of what Father Christmas looks like.
But St Nicholas, whose feast day is on 6th December, does resemble the rosy-cheeked patriarch we associate with this season, and Santa Claus is of course derived from his name. Present-giving and other seasonal activities are celebrated in some other countries on his name-day.
Confusing isn’t it?
St Spyridon’s Day is celebrated by well over half the population of Corfu – those who have been named after him, Spyridon (Spyros) or Spyridoula.
This is not one of the four great occasions celebrating the miracles of the Saint. He rested quietly in his massive silver sarcophagus on this year’s dark cold and gloomy day, undisturbed by brass bands and crowds, not required to be on duty, when he would be propped up uncomfortably in his gilded casket, supported on the muscular shoulders of Greek sailors as they march slowly around the Old Town.
Our Saint is believed to walk around the town every night in search of those in need of his help or healing powers and as a result his slippers wear out and must be replaced annually. The worn-out slippers are cut into tiny fragments and encased in triangles of fabric which are worn, or pinned to pillows in the case of babies or the sick, as a phylacto or talisman. I think one of the few things I managed to do to endear myself to a mother-in-law wary of a foreign bride was to queue for hours to obtain a pie ce of the Saint’s slipper for her.
Winter’s really here – the winter that so many of our summer visitors cannot imagine us having. But on looking through my photos for 2012 I see that in February, on Clean Monday, there was still a thick layer of snow on the mountains of Albania and Epirus, just across the channel from Corfu. And now, ten days before Christmas, there is again that thick, unbroken diadem of snow upon the craggy brows of the mountains. The kids have got their padded jackets on, their woolly hats and scarves, boots and gloves too - seems so strange after the warm weather lasting so long - like moving to another, colder country suddenly!
I don’t know if people do it as much as they used to, but all day long people used to trek from one house to another to bestow good wishes on friends and family named after the Saint, with cakes and bottles of booze, everyone dressed in their best. For once, you would see men in suits and ties, worry beads clicking furiously as they sat uncomfortably on furniture from which the plastic covering had been temporarily removed. (Remember ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’?) Women inevitably wore multiple ropes of gold chains that made me feel so inferior that I went and bought a few metres of gilt chain in a haberdashery store and wore that defiantly around my neck.
This year, our own kids went to town as usual with their parents for the annual treat of ‘loukoumades’ which are traditionally sold on 12th December from little stalls in the streets - like small round doughnuts, made on the spot , served piping hot drenched in sugar, cinnamon and honey! Not sure about the 'Health & Safety' aspects of the whole thing but hey! You need a few germs to build up immunity!
The word loukoumi means sweet and is the name by which Turkish Delight is known in Greece. You will also often see Greeks tasting a dish, usually roast meat, and kissing the ends of their fingers with a smile of approval, pronouncing it ‘loukoumi’ as a token of approval.
It’s not only the storms that we have to weather this year - austerity is biting this Christmas, our priority has to be keeping warm. Some of us cannot afford the high price of heating oil and we are threatened with huge increases in the cost of electricity. Many of us are lucky enough to have a fireplace in our home and so far Corfu remains well-supplied with wood, though cutting it is strictly controlled.
This year, Christmas will be a simple affair for the majority – something I cannot regret for I feel that the pleasures of Christmas reside in good home-cooked food, family and friends, and a few presents for the children – not necessarily expensive or elaborate.
When I was very little, life in England was hard for most families. Still reeling from the effects of war, Britain celebrated Christmas quietly and frugally. There were hardly any toys in the shops, sweets and food in general were rationed. My sister was still a baby then but I hoped Santa would remember I needed new dolls’ clothes and a jigsaw and some furniture for the old dolls’ house. It was our tradition to hang a pillow case on the end of the bed and socks on the mantelpiece, in the hope that Santa would fill them,
Thanks to kindly neighbours whose children were grown up and who had hoarded their prewar toys, thanks to my uncle who was a skilled and imaginative carpenter, thanks to my mum and grandma who were wizards with fabric and scissors, and thanks to my dad who had such big feet that his socks made a bottomless receptacle for Christmas sweeties, small toys and an orange - still a rare treat in those first post-war days -thanks to all their efforts Christmas became then the magical time that it has never ceased to be for me.
My brother-in-law continues the tradition of the homemade gift – in this case a whizzy toboggan ready for the Canadian winter!
And there is always the auntie who knits you something warm and lovely!
I must say that if you visited a cake shop on St Spyridon’s Day, or on any of the other namedays, you would not believe there is any crisis in Greece!
Boxes filled with oh-so-sweet confections were leaving every zacharoplasteio in rapid succession. Greeks share the Middle Eastern love of sweets – and are never satisfied with just ‘sweet’ – cakes and pastries are additionally drenched with sweet syrups, decorated with cream and sugar until you would think there is nothing left to decorate any further and then they are coated with chocolate icing! No wonder the dentists here are so good!
I know that there are people here in Corfu this year who do not have even a couple of spare euros with which to celebrate Christmas or any other winter holiday. They are not forgotten and those who can are helping the others with gifts of food and clothing and other essentials.
And in the town of Preveza, the Municipality is adding one euro to the rates and water bills to be used to feed the stray cats and dogs.
The Christmas Spirit endures.
I leave you with a photo of my ‘economy tree’ – here in Corfu the orange trees are now bright with their new crop – a Christmas tree in every garden! This one even has its own fairy.
Just an afterthought- Santa Claus is said to reside at the North Pole, but in fact there is a small mountain village in Corfu that is called ‘Santa’ - his summer retreat do you think?
In loving memory of Loula who will be much missed this Christmas.