Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Cross-Cultural Christmas

Since Thanksgiving Day is a foreign concept in the Balkans, it is easier to get in the “Christmas spirit” earlier here in Athens, Greece. As the usually mild, Mediterranean weather turns cooler and November stretches its long, skinny legs, we’re “putting up the tree” because 2012 will most certainly be our last Christmas as residents of Athens. We’ll be out of the country next Christmas and will be retired and back in the States for Christmas, 2014. To commemorate this 2012 milepost Christmas, we’ll welcome our adult sons and wives and will share this holiday time against the backdrop of the dominant cultures in which we do our work.

Christmas celebrations in Albanian culture are relatively new, at least from the perspective of recent history. Since the Apostle Paul preached the Gospel “as far as Illyria” and since Albanians are descendants of the Illyrians, they celebrated Christmas in some fashion from the beginning. But, thanks to 500 years of Ottoman domination, Christmas celebrations were replaced by Islamic traditions. Then, from the mid-twentieth century, Albania was ruled by a paranoid, isolationist, Communist dictator who insisted that there was no God; churches were closed and Christmas celebrations not allowed.

When we lived in Albania, despite the fact that Communism had fallen a decade earlier, a revisionist version of the holiday “myth” still remained. Ingeniously, the atheistic culture captured the essential social functions of a modern Christmas story and rewrote the script from a secular standpoint. By merging the popular Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve narratives, children anticipate the arrival of the “Old Man of the New Year” - a cross between Father Time and Santa Claus - who brings gifts to good children. Since few Albanians are Christians, the Good News of the coming of the Christ Child in Bethlehem is celebrated by only a small number of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and evangelical believers in Albania.

Until recently, Christmas day in Greece was a minor holiday, when compared with Easter. The pervasiveness of the Orthodox Church, with its preference for celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors (December 8), where presents are exchanged and the Feast of Epiphany (January 6), where young men dive into cold waters to retrieve a cross that has been blessed by a priest, makes December 25 less important.

On Christmas Eve and sometimes later, children travel from house to house, singing “kalanda,” Christmas carols. With small triangles and drums, they receive sweets, figs, nuts or coins. Greeks attend midnight mass and return home for a big family meal. Lamb and pork are roasted and “christopsomo” (Christ bread) is made in large, sweet loaves, with various shapes and decorations, reflecting the family profession. The main symbol of the season is a shallow bowl with wire suspended across the rim, from which hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. Water is kept in the bowl. Once a day, the mother dips the cross and basil into holy water, sprinkling every room of the house, to keep away the “kilantzarof,” (bad spirits) which appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to Epiphany.

In recent years, secular Christmas, with trees, Santa images, bright lights and retail sales has arrived in Greece. The largest Christmas tree in Europe is now erected in Syntaugma Square; unfortunately, due to riots, the tree was burned a couple of years ago!

When our kids come this Christmas, we'll attend the Christmas Eve service at our Greek Evangelical church and will sing hymns, read Luke’s account and hear the old, old story of how God loved us enough to come and dwell among us. In Greek, we’ll wish them “Kala Christougenna” and in Albanian, we’ll say “Gezuar Kristelindje!” “Merry Christmas!”

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