A damp late November night in the kafeneion, with the usual village gang, the windows steamed, mushrooms sizzling in a foil tray on top of the somba.
I mentioned that “o mikros mas”, our youngest, was coming to stay for the Christmas holiday. After the usual chorus of: “Well done! Lovely! The one with the good job? A fine boy!” A pause, then a question from the one member of the group who didn’t know us well.
“You celebrate Christmas? You’re Christians, then?”
“Of course they’re Christians,” answered emphatically o Kafetzis (the cafe owner), who, like all Greeks, thinks that Christians and “good people” are synonymous. “They’re Catholics”.
Well, we’re not, but I let that one go because I’ve been down that road before and “Lapsed Church of England” doesn’t mean a lot round here. I once explained mischievously that my sister-in-law is a priest, which she is, but I think everybody gave me the benefit of the doubt and assumed they’d misunderstood. Panagia Mou, how could there be such a contradiction in terms? A woman Father?
Some things just don’t translate, like the whole concept of a Western Christmas – secular for the vast majority with just a token nod to Baby Jesus. I usually just say that in England Christmas is a big celebration for the family, big in the way that Greek Easter is.
If they want details I’ll explain the traditions like stockings and stuffing and plum pudding. But on the whole I think our Greek friends are better off being unaware of the sheer mad, bad- tempered stressful frenzy of the interminably protracted season in Britain. The first sightings of the cards in September, the over-the-top jollity in the pub, the endless present lists, the overeating, the pressure to consume. Cheesy Christmas songs in every overheated and overcrowded store, tinsel-trimmed rubbish on the telly.
Not that the rot isn’t starting here.
Our first Christmas here, we couldn’t believe the lack of razzmatazz. So little of it, that we wondered if we’d got the day wrong. The week before, they erected in one corner of Rethymnon car park a token municipal Christmas tree – a stylised metal affair, which then stayed there until Easter and has been brought out of wraps every Christmas since. A couple of the city shops were decorated with traditional boats strung with fairy lights, which were lovely. There were small cheap decorations to buy in the 300 Drachma shop, as it was then, and the supermarkets were selling packs of the two traditional biscuits – the kourabiethes and the melomakarona – which any self-respecting Cretan housewife would make herself.
But Christmas in the village amounted to a small crib in the plateia, erected only on Christmas Eve, one or two children singing kalanta, the traditional carols, round the houses, and an awful lot of gifts to us of home-made kourabiethes and melomakarona. Despite the huge attendance at the morning church service, the supermarket was open on Christmas Day – “people need things, what can we do?” – as was the butcher, whose winking fairy lights were the only ones in town.
It was strange, but welcome, since we’d been trying to scale the whole thing down for years at home. For that first Christmas dinner we ate prime rib of beef, which isn’t much rated here and which therefore was cheaper than brizoles (steakes). I’d found brussels sprouts in a city supermarket freezer section but they were soggy and disappointing, so the next year we had fresh spanaki.
That next year, we were invited to the school end-of-year concert, and felt we belonged. On our way home we saw a red glow in the baker’s and ran to see if we needed to call the fire brigade, but it was only a life-sized illuminated winking Santa. Nowadays such things are all over the place, and Greeks have adopted the new ‘traditions’ of cards and turkey alongside the old like Agios Vassilis (Santa Claus) and the lit-up boat. The must-have seasonal accessory is a Christmas tree – which I wouldn’t buy because the prices are silly, and we no longer have the dear old family tree ornaments, and wouldn’t want to start again. The scale of the whole celebration is escalating each year here, but it’s still only pleasantly festive; it doesn’t start too soon, and you don’t have to fight your way through the shopping hordes.
This year, our first in a good house with a log fire, big kitchen and space for guests, I remember the good side of the traditional British Christmas, and am inclined to revive it with a Cretan slant. Our tapes of Christmas carols can alternate with the now well-worn CDs of Xylouris and Skordalos. Perhaps some fairy lights strung across the yuccas, and more lights for our model boat to put in the window.
Having discovered that people queue up for my friend Em’s mince pies in her village kafeneion, I’m going to try them out in ours. And I’ve made the mincemeat, because I had an illegally imported pound of suet in the larder (though I shan’t explain the contents of the pie filling. Little bits of kidney fat mixed into your raisins and apples? Po po po!)
I always did like making bread more than cakes, so this year I shall have a go at making my own Christopsomo, the Christ Bread which is the centrepiece of the Greek family Christmas table. I know it’s traditionally decorated with symbols of the household trade or profession, like lambs or fish, so I suppose for two retired hacks it’ll have to be piles of old newspapers modelled in dough.
Throughout the 12 days, we will keep the log fire burning day and night to keep the kalikantzari, the mischievous Christmas goblins from slipping down the chimney and wreaking havoc. Just in case. (This is a Cretan house, and they might not know we are foreigners and therefore don’t believe in such things!)
* By Alexandra Smithies