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Most days, my life with a Greek father is normal. Occasionally conversations switch between English and Greek, and we do cook with a lot of olive oil, but generally, my house is pretty similar to my friends’ houses. Around the holidays, though, my life gets a little wonky.
Instead of eating delicious cookies and fruitcake, leading up to the big day, Eastern Orthodox Christians have 40 days of fasting. That means a diet with no meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy, no alcohol and no oil. It limits my eating habits to mostly fruits, veggies and some grains.
People have been fasting for religious purposes for centuries, so I never feel alone in the struggle. We believe learning self-discipline and freeing one’s mind of material distractions pushes you to be more focused on the spirit, not the body. For Orthodox Christians, days leading up to Christmas are supposed to be solemn and focused on preparation.
Greeks do have a fun December though.
I remember as a kid every year I went caroling, singing to all the older Greek ladies around town. In Greece, children go door-to-door playing the triangle and violin, singing happily, and when the song finishes, the business owner or neighbor drops coins or bills into their basket. Some historical accounts claim that caroling started in feudal societies where down and out citizens would go door to door singing in exchange for food and drink.
Nowadays, these little groups of jolly kids still collect money. Sometimes, I would end the night with upwards of $50.
While carolers here would blanch at asking for compensation for their happy babble, Greek kids use this as a way to collect enough money to pay for presents for their parents and siblings. That way, when Christmas day arrives, drowsy parents don’t open the gift and say, “Yay, a drawing. Just what I wanted. How did you know?”
Their voices become edgy, close to the verge of sarcasm.
But possibly the strangest part of Greek Christmas is my family’s Christmas boat, as opposed to a tree. Using small candles to light up the Christmas tree dates back to at least the middle of the 17th century, but this was mostly in Germanic countries.
The Greek tradition of using a boat instead is not some oblique rule about sacred trees, but a practical solution to a problem.
Greece is a rocky country and mostly dry, and trees to not grow easily. Cutting them down for one month of decoration may be OK in countries where they grow everywhere and easily, but this is not Greece.
As the tradition of lighting up trees spread through the Balkans to Greece, Greeks decided they wanted in on the fun. They adopted the traditions of lighting up festive displays with candles, but instead of tall Christmas trees, they decorated their fishing boats. Today they are decorated with sparkling colored bulbs, and I remember going to Greece one year and watching the boats all docked in the harbor, bobbing to the tune of the waves and chants.
Then as more of the population moved to the cities, they took to decorating smaller, sometimes model, boats inside their homes. My house is one of them, and the strands of white twinkle lights that wrap around the masts light up my living room.
Traditional Greek Christmas is all about lessons — fasting, caroling, the boats — they all tie into teaching the larger story of the birth of Christ.
Fasting taught me to prepare for the ultimate guest, caroling taught me about joy and community and my Christmas boat taught me about the importance of tradition. Overall, they’ve taught me that holidays are about more than celebration and our brains have to be engaged to accept the lessons that they teach.
My Christmas is different; I’ve learned it is not about how you celebrate, but why.
Yes, I open small presents on Dec. 5th, when St. Nicholas comes. I bake melamakarona, not gingerbread men. And in my living room a decorated boat stands. Behind each moment, each tradition, comes a history and meaning, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Maria Kalaitzandonakes
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