LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA
Streams of presents (gold, silver, black) piled up in front of a white-washed wall. We had Christmas dinner in the absolute bliss of an Australian day of sunlight. We started with—do you mind the fleshpots?—smoked salmon, and then wandered into the garden and returned to have a roasted fillet steak (an hour in the oven, the centre red for those who wished it, the ends more done), and then after another pause fresh peeled lychees and blueberry tarts. Hours later, tea and tiny individually wrapped Christmas cakes tied with scarlet ribbon. I gave a mid-seventeenth-century grey Ming dish (also tiny) to my son-in-law and to my daughter something from my past: my great-aunt’s ruby earrings, surrounded by little seed pearls in gold.
As it happened, even though I loved reading about them, I did mind the fleshpots as described by my friend Amy, because they brought on very unchristian feelings of discontent, not to mention envy. Never in my life had I ever experienced such an elegant and impossibly rich Australian Christmas, and at the time of her writing I was a fairly unwilling and definitely homesick veteran of my fifth Greek one.
The British love to think that Australians spend Christmas day at the beach having prawn barbies. Perhaps some do, but my earliest Christmases were spent on the banks of Morse’s Creek in north-eastern Victoria. These occasions were heavily marked by anomalies, which of course were never thought about until much later. The festivities usually began on Christmas Eve, when campers and the population of the then small township of Bright gathered for carols by candlelight. I remember thick white candles stuck through squares of thick green cardboard, mounting blobs of white wax, the twinge of heat on small fingers, and the futile efforts of my childish contralto to reach the high notes of ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’. During the singing of my favourite ‘Good King Wenceslas’ I never wondered about the absence of snow ‘deep and crisp and even’. I don’t imagine anybody else did, either.
Christmas Day always began early for my sister and me, with the liquid notes of magpies in the trees along the river, and grey light visible through the tent flap. Stubble pricked our bare toes as we reached for the bulging pillowslips that were at the foot of our stretchers. We blew our cardboard trumpets with the shredded red and yellow paper spilling out the ends, cracked our teeth on minute rainbow-coloured balls of lollies, pranced along the river bank with excitement, and generally drove our parents and grandparents mad.
The ceremony of the Tree began with the exchanging of very modest presents such as home-embroidered handkerchiefs; then followed preparations of a culinary sort. Punctually at one we started on the traditional dinner of roast poultry and boiled pudding, sweltering the while behind swathes of cheesecloth and butter muslin, the grown-ups’ weapon against the invading armies of flies. We probably drank lemon cordial, a glass of which Father Christmas had already drunk in the middle of the night. It is all very vague now and was very much taken for granted then.
Decades later, it occurs to me to wonder how my grandmother produced this dinner: clearly the pudding in its rag and enriched with the mandatory threepenny and sixpenny bits was brought from home, but the chicken? And I think it was nearly always chicken, which was then a luxury in Australia. But all I can remember is a rather sulky camp fire, which was good enough for the frying of trout, but for nothing else except the boiling of the gluey porridge without which my grandfather could not start any day. We always left for the north-east at three o’clock in the morning in order to avoid the heat, but porridge still had to be eaten. And even on Christmas morning this diet-conscious teetotaller had a glass of Andrews Liver Salts and a teaspoon of molasses.
Things changed, as things do: the pure silver of the old currency was replaced by the unboilable alloys of decimal currency, so that puddings had to have coins stuck in them at the last minute, and we went to the river no more. With Christmas now being spent at home, the family became more ambitious about food, although the timing of cooking and eating was a worry, as attendance at the local Presbyterian church was compulsory: there was much concern on the part of grandparents that we might forget what Christmas was all about. By this time they had reluctantly given up on their son, who much preferred oven and pudding pot to singing and sermons.
Chicken still, he decided nearly always, although turkey featured occasionally. We children were press-ganged into rubbing the breadcrumbs for the herb and onion stuffing that was his favourite. Fillet of pork also featured on the menu, and a nice bit of ham off the bone was just the thing for tea. Duck was thought of as being impossibly luxurious, and Amy’s steak never occurred to anybody as a Christmas option: it would have been considered almost heretical. My mother, sweating and slaving, used to produce nine vegetables, if you count the baked tomato, onion and cheese savoury mat was a general favourite. The baked vegetables glistened richly on warmed plates, while the boiled green ones were a study in textures: the layered leafiness of sprouts, the pincushion hearts of broccoli, the matt finish of beans.
The making of the gravy meant a brief interval of crisis, with many a muttering about ‘consistency’, and the dread spectre of lumps, but was generally survived. The Christmas before I married, my Greek husband-to-be was naturally of the party, and bemused my mother by referring very inventively to the gravy as duck custard. He in his turn was bemused by the lack of alcohol, Schweppes Bitter Lemon and/or ginger beer being my family’s celebratory tipple: he had been taking wine with his meals from the age of two. I now shudder to recall that my parents, brought up in the rigid school of the Pledge, and brainwashed by mottoes such as ‘My drink is water bright’ and ‘Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine’, bravely and daringly compromised the year after with a bottle of Porphyry Pearl.
LETTER FROM GREECE
Nobody, and certainly not the tourist industry, ever mentions Greek winters and their short dark days. I am the coldest I have ever been in my life, and seem to be walking around on my ankles: I certainly cannot feel my feet. Snow sprinkles the mountains and the winds howl round the house like protesting human voices. During the day I help with the olive harvest and have blisters on my hands from the continuous whacking at the trees, and tears in my trousers from scrambling up them. At night I huddle over the fire and dread the moment when I will have to go upstairs where there is no heating at all and where the stone walls are about two feet thick. It’s all a bit much.
The rest of life stops for the olive harvest, and the throb of the machinery at the press is the first thing I hear in the morning and the last thing I hear at night. But a hush has fallen during Christmas week, and with it has come a muted air of festivity. Don’t you think that in the warmth and light of Christmas in Australia, a transplanted ritual, it’s easier to believe in peace, love and goodwill towards men? I do, anyhow, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Here there is a sense of deadness, of life being in abeyance, of a physical and spiritual hibernation, with the Birth being the one ray of light and hope that penetrates the general gloom. That’s the way I see it, anyway. And feel it.
There is also a sense of the continuing struggle between good and evil, for the Twelve Days of Christmas are haunted by the kallikantzaroi, the souls of the dead who come from Hades every year with the express purpose of wrecking the Tree of Life, which, so my mother-in-law tells me, is the only thing that supports the world. They do their best to pollute food and water and get up to all sorts of other tricks besides: the oldies keep a fire burning day and night as a weapon against them, but these stubborn creatures are really only banished by the power of the great Feast of Light on January the 6th.
Every Antipodean should have a real Christmas, a Northern one.
Christmas in Greece certainly had the effect of stripping away a few protective layers. My children discovered that there is no Father Christmas as such in Greece, and could not believe that they were supposed to wait until New Year’s Day, the Feast of St Basil, before they could be given toy cars and cakes: without my parents’ efforts via the Australian and Hellenic postal services the prezzie extravaganza would have become a thing of the past. Their Greek grandmother, their Yiayia, did not know what a Christmas tree was.
For the Orthodox, Easter is the feast of feasts, so that I found Christmas very low-key. While my mother anticipated Christmas early in October by assembling the ingredients for the Cake and by washing the pudding rags that were becoming more speckled every passing year, Yiayia gave it not a thought until 15 November, when one of the four great fasts of the Orthodox year began. While not as strict or as long as the Lenten fast, this period still requires abstinence from all animal products and, towards the end, from fish, wine and oil as well.
Over the years it became noticeable to me that Greek men often rely on their wives to do their fasting for them, particularly when it comes to the matters of wine and oil. As a heretic, I relied on Yiayia, who, it has to be said, did not demand that I follow her example, so that I was free to fork-toast bread over the fire and then drown the slices in newly pressed olive oil, the sort that gives you a catch of bitterness at the throat.
And then there was her grapefruit komposta, elegant in its syrup and preserving jar and hugely sweet to taste. This was something she could eat during the fast, and I watched her make it, watched her brown fingers as she painstakingly grated the surface of each yellow globe. The peel was cut into strips, which were then rolled and sewn together: ten strips to one kilogram of sugar and a large cup of water. All this was boiled and then rinsed three times and left overnight, after which it became a standby for visitors of the popping-in sort.
Festive things did not really get going until three or four days beforehand, when Yiayia, along with most of the female population of the village, plunged into a veritable frenzy of cooking. The baker put in very long hours: after he had made his bread, his oven became available for the large trays of twists and rings of koulouria and crescents of kourabiethes, varieties of shortbread produced by every conscientious housewife.
Greek recipes have clearly been devised by men, being chauvinistic plots to keep women in the kitchen for as long as possible, and the real time-consumer is the recipe for thiples, delicate treats of folded pastry made for every festive occasion. For a thipla cook-in, my sister-in-law would be confined to her kitchen with its constantly smoking chimney for eight hours at a stretch. First she made her own thin filo pastry, and then she spent a mini-eternity rolling it out with a fine piece of dowel. The fire was already alight and a cauldron of oil simmering for the receipt of two or three pieces of pastry at a time, which had to be turned and folded at a crucial moment that always remained a mystery to me. The last step in this ritual was the making of a warm syrup from honey and lemon, which was poured liberally over the resultant pile; then the whole was sprinkled over with a heavy shower of chopped almonds and guarded against children such as mine, raiders by nature and thus all too ready to succumb to temptation.
Once the baking was safely over Yiayia put on her second-best black and journeyed to the provincial capital of Kalamata for the all-important purchase of the turkey. She invariably had company on this outing, so that at least twelve live turkeys would make their last journey, their knobbled feet secured with string, in the hold of the bus. Year after year, Yiayia,fivefeet nothing of determination, would stump home from the bus stop, black string bag in one hand, huge flapping bird in the other.
Greeks, with a deeply held suspicion of home freezers, like their meat and poultry fresh, so that for at least a day the dinner would strut round the courtyard in feathered majesty and ignorant bliss until the executioner, usually a son-in-law or nephew, arrived with the gleam of intent in his eye matched by the glint of the knife in his hand. At which point I would disappear until I knew that the plucking, cleaning and the preparation for the avgolemono, an egg and lemon soup featuring giblets and other bits of ornithological anatomy that I did not want to think about, were over. I never did get used to the sight of two halves of a turkey’s stomach draped over the kitchen tap.
On Christmas Day the liturgy begins so early that worries about timing and cooking do not exist. By six o’clock the church is packed with the faithful, their breaths visible in white puffs as they light candles and kiss icons. Incense swirls while the sonorous voices of priests and cantors recite the Christmas story. After the service and the ritual exchange of greetings (Chronia polla: may you live for many years) people walk home through rimy streets to the warmth and welcoming aromas of their kitchens.
My contribution to this atmosphere was very small, as I gave up making Anglo-Australian puddings after a year. When I enthusiastically made one at the maternally appointed time well ahead of the festivities and explained to Yiayia that it needed hanging, she was very ready to oblige: she hung her cottage-style cheese from the rafters as a matter of course. But the foreign delicacy was too much for determined Peloponnesian mice: they wriggled along the relevant rafter and chewed through two layers of aluminium foil and one of pudding cloth and then went to town on the precious article itself.
I persevered with the Cake, however, although many of the set ingredients were not available, so that a pioneering spirit of compromise was necessary: instant coffee took the place of Parisian essence, prunes had to replace raisins, and one year I soaked the fruit in ouzo. The purists would be horrified, but it works.
And the Porphyry Pearl? It and its like have remained a distant memory, for in Yiayia’s house bottles never graced the festive board. Instead, bronze-coloured pannikins were filled as often as we liked from the homemade barrel that was full of homemade retsina. Disaffected wine buffs of my acquaintance liken this peasant wine to furniture polish, but for my money it’s a guarantee of a very merry Christmas.