There is a saying that Christmas comes but once a year. But it doesn’t. On the 21st October I walked past a busker playing Christmas carols, and saw shelves starting to fill with yuletide fare. If we all lived by that reckoning, Christmas and its associated paraphernalia would occupy one sixth of the whole year.
I have realised how much that means we miss out. For the last three years, I’ve lived in Greece – where each month, each season has its waypoints that are shared collectively. Some of them relate to the changing seasons – others are of religious, cultural or political significance or a mixture of them all. And together they give an immense richness to the rhythm of the year.
There is no way that shops can sell Easter eggs in January – there are far too many other experiences to be had in the meantime. Starting from New Years Eve but lasting most of the month is the tradition of ‘Vasilopita’- the cake of St Vassilis, aka Greek Father Christmas, that is shared (with a hidden coin for one lucky person) to mark the beginning of the year. Families, clubs, schools, all mark the first event in their year by sharing one. Then there is the run up to Lent – the two weeks before are ‘Carnival time’ – perhaps marked by processions and parades or just private parties and a tradition of dressing up – the parks in central Athens are full of children dressed up to go out just because it’s carnival time on the relevant weekends.
Just before Lent is ‘burnt Thursday’ where you enjoy an awful lot of grilled meat, and then Lent itself starts with ‘Clean Monday’. The parks and mountainsides are full of kites being flown – you see them everywhere as you drive even up the motorway. At no other time of year did I ever see a kite being flown – apart from perhaps the odd one at the beach. But on clean Monday, it’s what you do. It made me realise the difference between sharing and experiencing a tradition together, and just happening to take a similar decision to other people about what you feel like doing. We might decide to take a picnic to the woods and fly a kite on a sunny day – but we wouldn’t necessarily call out greetings to those doing the same.
Then there’s the big military parades, a public holiday and school processions for Independence Day on 25th March marking freedom from Ottoman rule. The nearest we would have is Remembrance Day here, but twice a year in Greece it happens on a completely different scale. Roads are closed, every school and civic organisation processes down the street. Then there is the week before Easter day – called literally ‘Big Week’ in Greece. Again, alongside the traditional foods cooked and eaten in families, there are the two big communal experiences – the processions on Good Friday evening, and the big event -the midnight fireworks and lighting of the candles outside the church at midnight on Easter Saturday. Whilst Easter Saturday is bigger, I was probably with several hundred people processing the streets from the local church on the Good Friday I joined.
The richness of the rhythm continues the rest of the year, and is apparent even in day to day life – the greetings you use vary according to whether it’s the start of the week, the start of the month, or the season of the year. Similarly the strong tradition of celebrating ‘Name days’ brings people together with an awareness that they are linked to others, and linked to a person of significance in their culture. Many names with a strong Greek heritage are very popular – (Eleni, Alexandros, Dmitri, Irini, Eva) and there is still a prevalent tradition of naming children after grandparents.
I’ve mentioned before that I really valued the ability to eat seasonally – seeing a pomegranate fruit develop through the year on the tree next door and then buying them in the market when you knew they had matured was a real pleasure. And I, for one missed Sunday trading not at all (particularly as the bakeries were open where you could buy the most amazing desserts as Sunday lunch guests). I developed a real sense that in fact, it’s us that lose out if we eat fresh strawberries all year round – it’s not just about the environmental impact.
So, in the UK, apart from Easter and Christmas, we have Hallowe’en and fireworks night, Remembrance Sunday, Pancake Day, Mothering Sunday, and the remnants of May Day celebrations and traditions apart from the many local traditions in different places. But what are the others we can envigorate? – the Sunday afternoon walk, the Saturday morning in the park, Christmas jumper day (Save the Children), Carol singing, the Big Get Together in June, the RSPB’s Wild Sleep Out – there must be many more.
Traditions and waypoints anchor us to who we are and provide a shared space to interact with others outside our normal relationships. Of course they can be used for negative ends at the wrong time and with the wrong leadership. And yes, there were frustrations in living in a culture with very strong expectations of what you do at different times (I was berated by a phone technician for not being at the beach with my children in August) But surely they can also help bridge divides, provide a focal point for those feeling more isolated, and situate us together in who we are, where we live and where we’ve come from and why we’re here.