Saturday, December 17, 2005
On the SIXTH Day of Christmas the Squawkers Give to Thee...TORI CARRINGTON!
TORI CARRINGTON (Lori and Tony Karayianni) GIVE YOU A BIG FAT GREEK CHRISTMAS...
It was the morning before Christmas, and outside the house, triangles were a ringing, and everyone was a singing, including Dimitri’s pet mouse…
Kales Yiortes. That’s Happy Holidays in Greek. And, no, I’m not using the generic greeting in deference to Chanukah and Kwanza (although we wish everyone a warm and wonderful Holiday Season). Rather, there are so many individual celebrations that fall inside the Greek 12 Days of Christmas that I’d be here all day writing them out.
Ever since I (Lori) was first introduced to Greek mythology, I wanted to be, well, Greek. Since that wasn’t possible, I did the next best thing and married one (becoming Greek by, um, injection, as one radio interviewer recently put it). My first Greek Christmas experience came when I was twenty-two and actually in Greece; talk about having your nose smooshed into a Greek icon. I was raised Catholic in a place where menorahs are as common as Christmas trees, and icon kissing is frowned upon at best, sacrilegious at worst. But in Greece where the population is 99% Greek Orthodox…well, to say that the Holidays are celebrated to the nth degree would be understating things a bit. Then again, over the past twenty some odd years married to Tony aka Adonis (yes, that’s really his name and he’ll always be my own, personal Greek god), I’ve come to understand that for the Greeks, to breath is to live, and to live is to break plates.
At any rate, in the States, the only time neighborhood children come knocking at your door is at Halloween and during the Girl Scout cookie fundraising drive. So imagine my surprise when very early Christmas Eve morn the celebration began with groups of children from age three up standing on the stoop ringing triangles (you get the occasional bouzouki, which is kewl, and every now and again gypsies will happen by with clarinets and the whole nine), and heralding Christ’s birth with a traditional kalada (Greek xmas carol) while you encourage them to speak up from the open doorway. Tradition dictates you give them something, and while once cookies might have done the trick, now money is the way to go, with the cutest of them getting the heaviest coin. (This is also done on New Year’s Eve morning, with a kalada proclaiming Agios Vassilis’ coming.)
On the third Day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three live hens, two wild boars and lamb’s innards on a silver tray…
The true festivities begin when you return from midnight mass to break the two-week Christmas fast, the house filling up with family (Tony’s parents’ place in this instance [we lived two floors up from them that year]), the table laden with food and bottles of wine ready to be poured. The first thing I learned was to try not to name the food being piled onto my plate (well, okay, it actually took me some time to learn this; call me squeamish, but lamb intestines is so not on my list of favorites), because to have goat meat served up beside whole roasted baby pig is not only common but the standard. And if you’re dining with the Greeks, you HAVE to eat. They stop just short of force-feeding the food to you, but their methods are just as effective as saying “open wide.” This is the point where you really appreciate their custom of knocking back wine like shots of liquor and are ready to elevate tsatsiki (a very strong garlic-cucumber yogurt sauce) to a key spot on the food pyramid.
As an American in Athens, I, of course, thought I was completely prepared for what would transpire on Christmas Day. I mean, how different could the celebrations be? While the caroling children should have given me a clue, at the time I didn’t speak Greek well, so I went armed with decorations, shopped for a tree, and put gifts for everyone underneath it. Imagine my surprise at the family’s surprise when I gave them each their nicely wrapped packages. You see gifts, if any, are exchanged on New Year’s Day, even gifts for the kids (that are nowhere on the scale of those we give here) who are visited by Agios Vassilis (Saint Basil), who rings in the New Year.
Interesting, really, that the word “commercial” doesn’t exist in the Greek language. While taking a box of melomakarana, kourbeithes, diples or any other Greek Holiday sweet either homemade or sold at corner bakeries (about the only thing open during this time, including gas stations, which can prove challenging), is traditionally presented to the day’s hostess, there really is no gift-giving outside the immediate family. This proved a bit of a culture shock for me…until I understood that the money they would have been spent on gifts is instead used to fill the table with food and wine for the length of the twelve days. A tradition that sets a joyous tone, the giving coming by way of love from the heart, with warmth provided by family and a blazing fire that keeps the Kalikantzri at bay (evil sprites Tony always imagined as miniature red devils complete with pitch forks, horns and tails, that play mischievous pranks if you don’t keep a fire going during the entire 12 days. Okay, this one caused a nightmare or two for me).
And so began a fun and dizzying period of unidentifiable food, free-flowing wine and activity that didn’t stop until January 6th.
Ah, the dancing. When was the last time you went to your in-laws' for the Holidays, ate dinner, then moved all the furniture out of the way so everyone could dance until their feet hurt, or until the wine ran out, or both? From Christmas Day on, imagine a nonstop line of joined hands and happy feet moving over a carpet of broken plates while traditional bouzouki music flows from the houses to fill the streets. Opa!
Then there are the traditions I learned that first Greek Holiday Season… There are so many of them, it’s so difficult to pick my favorites, but I’ll give it a shot. First, Christmas dinner is begun with Christopsomo, round Christmas sweet bread that’s crossed three times before cutting by the head of the house, a piece given to each diner. Another similar custom is the cutting of Vassilopita, a round New Year’s cake that has a coin hidden inside. Whoever receives the piece bearing the coin is said to have extra luck for the year. (This is done in each house and later at businesses, with “the cutting of the Vassilopita“ a bit of a post-holiday party in the case of the latter, often times including the families of the employees so the season can stretch to February or until lent. Gotta love the Greeks!)
Then there was Foton or Epiphany, the celebration that officially brought a close to the 12 Days. Huge tanks of water were placed outside all the churches and blessed. A good cup in hand, I visited the church across the street with Mana (my mil), bringing home some of the holy water and, using a sprig of fresh Basil, she sprinkled it throughout the house to both cleanse and bless it for the New Year. Including everyone inside. (The first time my late mil – bless her heart -- did this, I think she was a bit upset with me because I really got showered. Kind of reminded me of a scene from the Exorcist and it was all I could do not to thrash my head back and forth and cry, “It burns, it burns!” Ahem. Sorry. I probably will burn for that one. In Greek hell.)
In all seriousness, until I experienced the Holidays in Greece, the 12 Days of Christmas existed as only a song for me. As a writer, I’ve got to appreciate the symmetry of the celebration. You have your beginning by way of Christmas, your middle via New Year’s, and your end with Epiphany. As a human being, this time of family togetherness and high spirits left me in awe and ready to face the New Year with a bag full of happy memories and, well, all partied out.
So if Tony and I could wish you three things from the Greeks, they would be good health, the warmth of family (whichever way you define it), and a very strong stomach!
Kala Christouyenna kai Kali Kronia! (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year)
You can find recipes for melomakarana and kourabeithes on our site at www.sofiemetro.com/recipes.htm
We've talked a lot about different holiday traditions this week. Are there any holiday traditions in your family that spring directly from YOUR cultural background?
Best-selling, award-winning authors Lori & Tony Karayianni aka Tori Carrington have published over thirty titles with Harlequin and Silhouette. Their first hardcover Sofie Metropolis was released this year and launched their own comedy-mystery series featuring the Greek-American P.I. of the same name. Their next hardcover Dirty Laundry starring Sofie is due out May 2006. For more info on the authors and their books -- and to enter a special holiday drawing! -- visit them at www.toricarrington.net and www.sofiemetro.com.