Tuesday, 18 December 2018

December 18 - A boat, a tree and Christmas

(A Christmas tree in Molyvos)

The Lesvorian landscape is filled with olive trees, but the island also has plenty of pine tree forests, which in the winter give a cozy Christmas atmosphere. However, they are not real Christmas trees; it's usually fir trees that are decorated. What is the difference? The needles of a fir tree grow free from each other, the needles of a pine tree - the ones you find all over Lesvos – grow together in groups. That does not mean that branches of the pine tree, or even little pine trees, will not serve well for Christmas decoration, but Lesvos can never pretend to be the place where the Christmas tree came from.

That place is somewhere in the North of Europe, in the Baltic states or Germany, countries covered with fir trees. During the dark days around the 16thcentury, the idea came to decorate a tree for Christmas, maybe inspired by the medieval mystery plays, where often on December 24 the Tree of Paradise featured: the Tree of Life with apples. So it might be that the Christmas tree comes from the north. For decorating a tree we have to go back in time and to the south: to the Greeks and their Olympic gods. In ancient times the Greeks held up branch’s of the olive or laurel tree and decorated them with red and white threads of wool and walnuts, chestnuts, figs, apples and whatever fruit was left. This merry branch was called Eiresioniand was to thank the gods for the harvest, or – when the harvest was not good at all – to ask for a better one for the coming year. Homer mentioned this Eiresioni in one of his works: in autumn children went around the houses, carrying a decorated branch and sang songs with wishes for a good harvest. 

Thesekalanda, the name for these good-harvest-and-good-luck-songs, are still performed by children going around the houses, but now at Christmastime. The children however no longer carry a branch, but a triangle to give the rhythm for the songs. When and why in history the Christmas branch was lost, I do not know. Before the triangle, the children carrieda little decorated boat in their handsand in Byzantine times it even may have been a little Byzantine church. 

The ancient Greeks also decorated little ships during the very old festivities in honour of Dionysus. He was the only god who took a boat to visit the islands and this way a little ship became symbolicforthe arrival of Dionysos: let the party begin! But that is not the only boat that was decorated in ancient times. You also have Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of all seamen, whose Name Day is on December 6th. He saved more than one sailor from a rough sea. A decorated boat may also be a symbol for this white bearded saint. And then there are historians who think that such a beautiful little ship may also have been decorated just out of joy because a loved one returned safe and sound from the sea for the holidays. 

Even though the Greeks may have provided the inspiration to decorate a fir tree, the decorated Christmas tree was first seen in the country in 1833. Otto, the second son of King Ludwig of Bayern, was seventeen years old when he was put on the throne of Greece in 1832. Not only did he bring an army of German servants, he also brought lots of traditions. Like a real Christmas tree, that every year was installed in his palace. And so, after endless wanderings the decorated olive branch returned to Greece as a decorated Christmas tree.

King Otto did not succeed in winning the love of the Greeks. In 1862 he was thrown out of the country, but the Christmas tree remained. The number of Greeks that copied the tree, was countless. Along with the Christmas tree he also introduced beer brewing to Greece, another German passion that remained. Even though that beer never became a Christmas drink.

I am happy that the Greeks have not been inclined to have a nasty national debate about what is more Greek: a boat or a tree as Christmas decoration. Most municipalities are even not making that choice and place both a boat and a tree in public places. An answer to the question what is more Greek probably does not exist: both the decorated trees and the decorated boats have their origin with the Greeks and their desire to enjoy life.

Kαλά Χριστούγεννα!

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

©Smitaki 2018

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Moria: city of the future

(Za'atari camp, Jordan. Photo: internet)

When King Croesus, once the richest man of the world, went to the oracle at Delphi, it told him that a big empire would come to an end. Croesus made his empire Lydia big and wealthy and the oracle’s answer mislead him into attempting to conquer the Persian empire. However, he lost the battles, lost Lydia and his life.

You could consider history as an oracle. Were Europe to consult the oracle, the answer might be that a mighty empire will perish. Big empires always decline; that is the law of the Medes and the Persians. The only question is when.

The arrogance of the big states is that they think themselves invincible, not seeing that time is nibbling at them. For instance Europe: I see her as a tired, old lady, swinging her handbag against the big money makers, even though she knows they have already bought her house. Her body is too stiff to follow the always faster moving history.

Just take a look at the list of the biggest refugee camps— most of them in Africa. Compare them to the smaller camps on the Greek islands. Then you wonder who are the third-world-countries. Africa has many problems of its own but seems at least to know how to deal in a humaen way with refugees, in contrast to how Europe deals with refugees in – for example – camp Moria on Lesvos.

Our history consists of only wars and therefore it is strange that today’s crisis of refugees is considered as temporary. Refugees are no temporary problem! Since the Second World War produced over 60 millions of refugees, and like wars, refugees kept on coming and going.

Similarly there have always have been immigrants. In Rotterdam (Holland) they want to open a museum for the millions of emigrants that left from Rotterdam to America around one hundred and fifty years ago. I think that abit cynical, because these mostly very poor people were just economic refugees, a group of people that nowadays has a problem finding a new country; even in Rotterdam they are not welcome.

In the past people crossed the oceans because that huge Americaseemed to be the promised land. Now in Europe there is not much land to offer, but lots of villages are emptying, causing schools and shops to close leading to the whole village becoming uninhabited. And North European countries have to deal with an increasing number of labour shortages. I remember the same problem in the Sixties. Northern European countries then sought immigrants from the south of Europe and from Africa. Now emigrants and refugees knock on the door of Europe, but do not even get a chance to explain who they are or what they can do.

The visionair Kilian Kleinschmidtleft the UNHCR to realize his own ideas, one being the camp Za'atari in Jordan, where he created safety and more humane conditions: We need to look at refugee camps as urban spacesFor him it is important that the people – while waiting for whatever – have a safe space to live, to be able to earn some money or go to school, in order to keep their dignity. 

Small NGO's, the new world of hope, have also understood. They form the rare little high points of hope in the worst managed camps like Moria; what the European (and Greek) governments don't do, on purpose or not — they do. Like collecting relief goods and medical equipment for the local hospital that struggles with the general Greek crisis, and, even important: they organize projects for the 8000 refugees stuck in and around the camp and for the local people. They provide medical assistance, schooling, musical projects, creative lessons, sports activities, theatre performances, dinners at restaurants and coffee sessions. But they cannot do anything about the mud, the make-shift tents, the eternal waiting times for food and papers, dangers and other inhumane things. Would mister Kilian Kleinschmidt be so good as to come and reorganize Moria? 

I am fascinated by the big camps in Africa and in Jordan: they grow into new cities, complete with shopping streets and entertainment areas. Moria does not look at all like Za'atari city, where everybody has more space, physical and psychological. Perhaps the camp should become far bigger. The Chinese – looking for building projects all over the world – could do just the job, being so good in building new cities in no time. And there are plenty of ideas for refugees houses.

The devoted members of the long list of NGO's keep on coming and going to the capital Mytilini, where it has become hard to find a room. The city fizzes with new life during summer and winter. Refugees keep on coming, as long as the wars in the Middle East do not finish. Change Moria into a city of the future. Lesvos can use a new city and even that way pimp up its damaged image.

Probably these words will fall on deaf ears. Europe is fixed on its economical dictatorship where there is no longer room for humane thinking. But the people are starting to react and climb the barricades. Europe, are you listening?!

(With thanks to Mary Staples)
©Smitaki 2018