Archive for December, 2009

January Saints: St. Basil (330-379)

December 30, 2009

Vasilis means royal and is a very common name in Greece. The English equivalent is Basil, perhaps the most famous one being Basil Fawlty, and many Greeks by this name sometimes call themselves Bill or Billy in English. The female form is Vasiliki and the nickname is often Vasso.

The saint behind this name is Agios Vasilios (St. Basileus) and he was one of the Three Hierarchs, or Church Fathers, of Christianity. The main church of Skiathos is named after them and here you will find many icons of St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John. St. Basil is also “Ai-Vasilis” or Father Christmas to the Greeks and this is why Greek children traditionally get their presents on New Years Eve, as St. Basil is celebrated on January 1 (his death day).

St. Basil came from Cappadocia (today’s Turkey) and was born to a wealthy, Christian family where several members were saints. For example, his grandfather had died a martyr’s death, his grandmother was St. Macrina, the patron of widows, and four of his siblings were later canonised.

As his family was rich, young St. Basil was very well educated and he studied law and rhetoric in both Constantinople and Athens. His class-mate and best friend was St. Gregory, another of the Three Hierarchs, and they remained close for their whole lives. At one point, their fellow student was Julian the Apostate who obviously was not too impressed with the new religion; when he came to power he persecuted and killed many Christians, amongst others St. Reginos of Skopelos, who was executed for refusing to return to the old gods.

When St. Basil was 27 he was baptised and decided to stop being a lawyer. Instead, he went on a life-altering journey to the Middle East where he tried to live an ascetic life, which unfortunately ended up ruining his health. The strict diet damaged his liver so badly that he died before reaching 50. Meeting and living with the monks and hermits in Palestine and Egypt made a deep impression on St. Basil and when he returned home, he founded a monastery near the Black Sea.  Although he did agree with the austere life a monk must lead, St. Basil also believed that this, in excess, could border on self-obsession and come dangerously close to hubris, and therefore stated that hard work and studies were just as important and that a monk should find a balance between the two. This inspired and altered monastic life to such a degree, that St. Basil today is considered the father of communal monasticism.

At the age of 40 St. Basil became a bishop and quite a difficult one too. Here we come to one of the more interesting aspects of his personality: whilst fellow saints such as St. Nicholas and St. Spyridon were described as mild-mannered and humble, St. Basil could be very temperamental and argumentative. He especially disliked priests who acquired personal property and civil servants who did not do their job properly. As he had been a lawyer, he was very well versed in the order of things and knew how to present his case against corrupt judges and their unfair trials and he also disapproved of church officials using pompous language to seem holier than thou. This, of course, made him unpopular with the powers that ruled and the Emperor banished him several times, with little success, one might add, as St. Basil was popular with the people.

On the other hand, St. Basil was very generous and gave away much of his fortune to the poor. He was the first one to found a public hospital and a poorhouse and he used to organise soup-kitchens when famine struck. One of his main missions in life was to convert thieves and prostitutes and he would often defend those that had been treated unfairly by the authorities.

In Greece Vasilopita, Basil’s pie, is baked for the New Year. It is a symbol of St. Basil’s acts of charity towards the poor in times of food shortages and a coin is always hidden in it. The pie is cut in several pieces: one for St. Basil, one of Christ, one for the house and one for each family member. Whoever gets the coin gets fortune for the coming year. It is also St. Basil’s many good deeds that have made him the Orthodox Father Christmas, rather than St. Nicholas. St. Basil is also the patron saint of hospital workers as well as the protector of teachers.

In icons, St. Basil is depicted as a thin, dark haired man as he died quite young. He has a long, two-pointed beard and he wears a Bishop’s robe and carries the Holy Scriptures in one hand. On Skiathos, there are two churches dedicated to him: on in Kastro and the other is the Church of the Three Hierarchs, the main church in town.

The herb Basil is named so not because of the saint, but rather because of its etymology (royal). Legend has it that St. Helen found the Holy Cross because Basil grew on the spot and so, Basil represents Christ the King. Orthodox priests often sprinkle Holy Water with Basil leaves and it is perhaps no coincidence that this has become a symbol of love and faith as opposed to the pagan, ancient Greek belief that it was a symbol of hate.

To anyone called Vasilis, Vasiliki, Basil etc. chronia polla and a Happy New Year to everyone else!

More about saints on http://www.skiathosbooks.com

Christmas – a Dangerous Time of Joy

December 19, 2009

We all know that Easter is the most important religious holiday of the year in Greece but Christmas is, of course, also celebrated. Anyone that has lived in the country for a while will recognise the lighted boats and Christmas trees, the blinking balconies that make whole neighbourhoods look like a UFO has just landed, and the young children singing Christmas Carols from door to door.

Like most of the customs in the western world, Christmas has a well-documented pagan origin and perhaps the best known one is the Roman solstice festivities, celebrated on December 25.  Another ancient remnant is the superstition concerning the Kallikánzari, evil looking little demons that emerge from the depths of the earth on Christmas Day and remain here for 12 days. Tradition has it that they try to break into people’s houses through the chimneys and if they succeed, they do everything they can to pester the inhabitants: they urinate on the food, extinguish the fire, steal things and turn the milk sour. Tip: when the fire crackles it is a sign of them approaching! To this day, many Greeks keep their fires going all through the holidays to keep the goblins away and they will sprinkle the rooms of the house with Holy Water every morning. Tradition has it that the Kallikánzari are ancient soldiers that were killed in battle but never laid to rest and so, they have turned into a kind of vampires or zombies. They finally disappear on the 6th of January when the Greeks celebrate the Baptism of Christ (Theofánia) by throwing crosses in the water.

During the Christmas holidays children run around in little groups and knock on doors and enter cafes and shops eagerly asking “na poúme, na poúme” (shall we sing?) and if the answer is yes, they race through a few verses as quickly as possible (after all, time is money), accompanied by hurriedly played triangles, to get rewarded with a few coins. These Greek carols are called Kálanda, from the Latin Calandae, the first days of the month, and are about the birth of Christ, well-wishes for the coming year etc. Sometimes the children carry small wooden boats, which again stems from the ancient world. In ancient Greece, children would go from house to houses during these days, singing very similar songs and the boat represented the arrival of the god Dionysus.

For the Orthodox that want to take Holy Communion on Christmas Day a long fast precedes the 25th but afterwards they make up for it by consuming all sorts of delicacies: turkey or pork, sweet cakes and Christópsomo (Christ Bread). Because St. Basil is Father Christmas in Greece, children are not supposed to get any presents until New Year’s Day (St. Basil’s Day) but these days the “rules” are normally bent.

Kalá Christoúgenna to everyone!

The Benaki Museum

December 14, 2009

If you have a few days to spend in Athens, a must is the Benaki Museum! The building is neo-classical and was originally a private home, belonging to the very prominent Benaki family. They were wealthy Greeks of the Diaspora in Egypt but also owned property in Greece. Adonis Benakis (1873-1954) was the one to start collecting various artifacts, mainly Islamic art at first and later ancient Greek and Byzantine and eventually this would turn into one of the largest private collections in the world. His sister, Penelope Delta (1874-1941) was the first author of children’s books in Modern Greek and therefore deserves a mention.

The Benaki Museum now houses over 50.000 artifacts and the visitor can literally walk through Greek history, starting with pre-historic objects and ending with 19th century costumes, artworks and items. The museum is a short walking distance from Syntagma square: just walk along Vasilissa Sofias avenue and you will soon see it on your left hand side. It also has a wonderful restaurant on the roof terrace!

Here follows a few photographs with captions of what you can see in the museum. (The reference points can be found in our book A History of Skiathos.)

Ancient mummy portraits from Egypt. These portraits are said to have inspired later icon painting.

Byzantine icons. Here a very unusual motif: The Virgin breast feeding baby Jesus.

A private Greek home during Ottoman Rule.

Traditional costumes from Skopelos (left) and Skiathos.

Lord Byron's actual weapons and mobile work desk. He played an important part in the Struggle for Independence and died in Greece.

Official court dresses from the second king of Greece, George I's, rule. It was his wife, Queen Olga, who supposedly ran into the Evagelistria Monastery, which at the time was forbidden for women. Legend has it that she got her punishment though!

December Saints: St. Spyridon (270-348)

December 11, 2009

Although the patron saint of Corfu, Spyridon (masc. Spyros, fem. Spyridoula) is quite a common name on Skiathos and his icons adorn many of the local churches. St. Spyridon came from Cyprus and was born in 270. His family was very poor and they could not afford to give their son any education whatsoever and so, he became a shepherd. He married young and had several children but when his wife died, his life took somewhat of a turn and he became a man of the church, eventually becoming bishop.

St. Spyridon would have met our friend St. Nicholas, as they both attended the famous council of Nicaea in 325, where many of the creeds of the Christian Church (that still prevail) were determined. One famous story from this meeting tells how St. Spyridon proved the Holy Trinity by showing everyone a potsherd that suddenly caught fire and turned into dust and water; three elements incorporated as one.

Just like his fellow saints, St. Spyridon was known for his many acts of charity and he is believed to have had the powers of healing and exorcism. One of his even more impressive talents was to be able to control the elements: he is said to have stopped the flow of a stream when unable to cross it on his way to rescue a friend in need and on another occasion he lit all the candles in a church simultaneously. People also used to pray to him for rain.

In icons, St. Spyridon is depicted as an elderly man with a long, white beard, wearing a basket on his head (spyris means basket). His relics are now kept on Corfu, where they were taken by a monk to save them from the Turks. His right hand, however, now rests in Rome. On Corfu there are stories about how the saint has rescued the island on several occasions: from Turks, famine, cholera and the plague.

St. Spyridon is celebrated on the 12th of December (by Catholics on the 14th) and he is the patron saint of shepherds, potters, Corfu and the Tolstoy family. If you know anyone called Spyros or Spyridoula, wish them χρόνια πολλά (chronia polla – many years) on 12/12.

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December Saints: St. Nicholas

December 3, 2009

Being a sea farers’ country, St. Nicholas, the protector of the sailors, is very popular in Greece.  His churches overlook harbours everywhere and Skiathos is no exception. On Skiathos there are three churches in his honour; one towering over the town on the Kotronia hill (where the post box stood in Mamma Mia), a smaller one just below and one in Kastro.

But who exactly was St. Nicholas? In icons we see him as a white haired, slightly balding, elderly bishop giving benediction with one hand. The other hand holds the Bible and out of reverence for the Holy Scripture, the hand is covered with his robe. As is usually the case in icons, his face is severe, again a sign of reverence, and around him we often see images of the sea: sailors in need, ships, dolphins etc.

Born to a wealthy, Christian family in the Greek  Lycia (today’s Turkey) in 280, St. Nicholas showed very early signs of being a holy man: only three days old he stood up in his bath and refused his mothers breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, as these are days of fasting. As a toddler, he never wanted to play children’s games that had to do with bluffing or make believe. When both his parents suddenly died of the plague, young Nicholas gave away most of the family wealth to the poor and soon became a priest.

Travelling by sea, St. Nicholas once made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One night, he dreamt that he saw Satan destroying the sails and when he woke up he warned the crew and the captain that they were in danger. Sure enough, a fierce storm soon came over them but through his prayers, St. Nicholas managed to save them all. It is from this story that people all over the world have made him the patron saint of the sea, and it is not unusual that Greeks light a candle or leave a gift (tama) to St. Nicholas before a sea journey.

St. Nicholas became Archbishop of Myra, not far from his home town, and eventually served under Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to make Christianity a state religion and founder of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). He was very much a loved priest, and said to have been very gentle and understanding. The list of acts of compassion and miracles during his lifetime are endless: saving himself and his fellow prisoners when arrested and tortured during the emperor Diocletian’s rule, resurrecting three babies that had been murdered, exorcising a demon from a young man etc. St. Nicholas donations were always anonymous and it was this secret gift giving that eventually turned him into Santa, albeit not in Greece (here, St. Basil is Father Christmas). One story tells us that St. Nicholas once provided three maidens with enough dowries to marry, thus saving them from slavery. He threw bags of gold through their window and the money landed in their socks, which later turned into the custom of hanging out socks for Christmas.

When St. Nicholas died at the age of about 60, he was deeply mourned and his funeral procession was attended by people from all layers of society. Thousands flocked to his grave, as his relics were believed to work miracles and in 1087, his remains were taken to Italy in an act of “saving them from barbarians”, a subject of harsh discussions between Italians and Greeks to this day.

St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th and anyone called Nikolaos, Nikos, Nicoletta etc. have their name days. The actual name in Greek is Νικόλαος, NikOlaos and it means “victor of people”. Apart from sailors, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of students, merchants, pawnbrokers, children and the Greek navy. In December, the Greeks put lighted models of boats in the streets and their homes in his honor and even though he is not the Christmas saint, St. Basil’s boats are the traditional Christmas decoration, rather than the Christmas tree.

If you know someone named after St. Nicholas, do not forget to wish them chronia polla (many years) on December 6th. Name days are more important than birthdays in Greece and a message or phone call will always be much appreciated.

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