Monday, January 03, 2005


A Happy New Year to all of you. May the traditional Greek symbol of the New Year, the boat, convey us safely and trouble-free through the murky waters of the unknown for the next 365 days. For those who are lacking in love, may it be a Love Boat for them, for those who are concerned at the latest manifestations of Encheladus and his accompanying tsunamis, may it be a Noah’s Ark to shield them from worry (and seal in the rustic animal smells) and lastly, for those who are still in party mode, may it be a funky European speedboat, conveying them to shore after shore of European beach party, the type where men can where pink shirts and white pants and shoes without socks, without having their masculinity challenged.
The celebration of New Year’s Day is arguably as old as the Greek people themselves. For the ancient Greeks, New Year’s Day, the «Ανθεστήρια» was celebrated on the first day of spring, when the first snows were beginning to melt and nature was slowly waking up from its torpid wintry slumber. Inextricably linked with this concept of nature’s awakening within the ancient mind was the dichotomy between life and death. For in celebrating New Year’s Day, the ancient Greek commemorated the plight of Persephone, doomed to spend six months with her husband Hades in the underworld and six months with her mother Dimitra in the living world. In Cyprus and Phoenicia opposite, New Year’s day commemorated the rebirth of the most beautiful youth Adonis, who would be torn apart every winter, only to reappear in spring, bringing new life. The New Year was therefore looked upon as a harbinger of hope.
Traditionally, Greeks exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day. This custom, instituted by the Roman Emperor Tiberius who forbade his subjects from exchanging gifts on any other day than the first of the month dedicated to the god Janus is only now receding in the face of the aggressive western commercialisation of the Festive Season in Greece. Traditionally, people would give each other simple gifts of figs, flowers or honey. As time passed and people became acquisitive, money would be gifted, using as a pretext, the old adage that money is sweeter than honey! In Roman times, the ancient Greeks would decorate their homes with laurel, olive or pine branches in anticipation of the New Year. As soon as the sun rose, they would go outdoors, holding lighted torches and go from house to house, solemnly but joyfully chanting «κάλανδα» songs welcoming the Calends of January (ie. the first day of the month.) The Romans on the other hand, welcomed in the New Year with masked dances, gambling and orgies. In time, the Greeks also adopted these.
Try as it might, the Church could not entirely stamp out the pagan undertones and customs pertaining to the first of January. So much so that in the fourth century, St John Chrysostom lamented that «αι παννυχίδαι, τα σκώμματα, αι λοιδορίαι και οι ακολασίαι» had enslaved the entire population of Antioch. In order to combat what it termed to be “demonic behaviour,” the Church imposed a fast between 31 December and 3 January. However, it proved impossible to enforce this, to the extent that even priests were caught wearing masks and joining in the revelry.
The Byzantines really “got into” their New Year’s Day celebrations. Court and subjects alike enjoyed playing the latest fad to be cheaply imported from China, cards, on New Year’s Eve. This is a custom that has remained with us to the present day. Masked parties, the wearing of animal skins or parading around nude in public like yobbos shouting Hoorah! was the order of the day. The more rowdy and drunken of the revellers would break doors open, beat up passers-by and rob them. Perhaps the greatest devotee of the revels was the Emperor Michael III, who would dress himself up as the patriarch and his attendants as bishops and would walk the streets receiving the homage of the populace. In 847, along with his disguised attendants, he started to conduct a liturgy in the Forum of the Bull. Suddenly, he threw off robes and began to dance and sing, to the wild acclamation of his subjects and the despair of his mother, Theodora, the restorer of Orthodoxy, whose face Michael secretly painted red and paraded her through the streets to show the populace that even his prudish mother was joining in the festivities. This would probably account for her overthrowing him and assuming power herself, proving that one should never upset their mother on New Year’s Eve.
January 1 commemorates in the Christian calendar, the circumcision of Christ. The troparion of that day is significant: “The Saviour, condescending to the race of men, in swaddling clothes accepted circumcision, He did not abhor the cutting of His flesh..” Just as, out of love and charity Christ accepted to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and have a humble birth, so he accepted painful circumcision, just like all men of the time. This extreme condescension and self-emptying of Christ is thus regarded as a great feast.
January 1 also commemorates St Basil the Great, one of the Orthodox Church’s most important theologians. He was a gifted philosopher, writer of church services, outspoken moral spokesman and a great humanitarian who built hospitals and orphanages and interceded for his parishioners in his see of Caesarea in Asia Minor against the rapacity of the Imperial bureaucrats. So inextricably linked was he to the welfare of his people, that during Turkish occupation, the Caesareans still believed that St Basil continued to intercede for them. He was said to have played cards with the Turkish Pasha in order to win back all the taxes exacted from the Christians on New Year’s Eve and the Caesareans commemorated this by playing cards on New Year’s Eve as well.
Of course this is but a slightly different version of the traditional St Basil legend of the «Βασιλόπιττα.» St Basil was able after vigorous representations to have the Caesareans’ taxes returned to them by the Byzantines. But who could redistribute vast quantities of goods to their rightful owners? St Basil commanded that a huge pie be made and all the taxes included into it. Then each family was invited to take a piece. Upon eating it, each family discovered that their taxes had miraculously been included in their own piece. We commemorate this ever since, by including a gold piece in our own Vasilopittes. The first piece we cut belongs to Christ and the second to St Basil. In Epirus, the Vasilopitta traditionally took the form of a chicken and rice pie and instead of a gold coin, beans were included within it. Whoever found the bean would be blessed with a good harvest.
In rural Greece, particular attention was given to animals on New Year’s Eve, in the hope that they would multiply and be healthy. The great theologian and iconographer Photios Kontoglou tells a heart-warming story where a shepherd chanced to entertain St Basil unawares on New Year’s Eve and found his flocks blessed as a result of his hospitality. In many villages, people would leave gifts at springs or wells in order to propitiate the water and ensure that it would continue to flow throughout the year. In modern times, many Greeks let their taps run on New Year’s Eve to stimulate a “flow” of luck. The first water to be obtained on New Year’s Day is used to wash the grief of the old year away.
In Samos, as in many other parts of Greece, great attention is paid to the «ποδαρικό,» ie. who will first enter one’s house. My grandmother for example, would insist that my sister enter her house first because she was supposed to be lucky. We would enter last, after the good luck had entered first. Upon entering the house, one had to step on a key or another metallic object on the ground saying the following: «Σίδερο πατώ και σιδερένιος νά’μαι,» so as to ensure good health and an iron physique, only to be negated by the vast feast and expanding stomach that followed. Fruit and a glass of water were also placed at the doorway to encourage fruitfulness and purity. In Athens, a pomegranate is smashed in the house and its seeds scattered in order to ensure exactly the same thing. Some argue that this is a custom that has survived through ancient times, commemorating the pomegranate seeds eaten by Persephone in Hades but there seems to be no connection.
Finally, it is well-established superstition that whatever the New Year finds you doing, you can be certain that you will be doing that all year long. In this diatribist’s case, it found me spewing forth this diatribe, so expect many more to come! Καλή Χρονιά και χρόνια πολλά!

First published in NKEE on 3 January 2005