KUNM

In Greece, A Muted Christmas Amid Tough Times

Dec 28, 2011
Originally published on December 28, 2011 5:34 pm

In Greece, caroling season runs through the Orthodox Christian holiday known as the Epiphany, celebrated on Jan. 6. Traditionally, children go door-to-door, playing the triangle and singing songs of the season. In return, people give them a few euros for presents.

But this Christmas, Greek retailers say sales fell 30 percent from last year. The unemployment rate is at record levels, crime is rising and austerity is dampening everyone's spirits.

On one recent day, three 11-year-old girls are caroling outside a worn-out apartment building in their neighborhood. The song is called "Kalin Esperan Arhontes" — literally, "Good evening, lords" — a joyous greeting for those who open their homes to holiday cheer.

But there's not much cheer in Athens this year. The girls are singing outside because no one in this building will let them in.

"Some people let us in with love, and others just don't answer the door," says Alexandra Borozon, one of the girls.

They say they're not scared, because their fathers are watching over them. Another girl, Stella Tsega, points to two burly men standing just a few steps away. Vangelis Pissias, a 56-year-old architect, is one of the fathers.

"We're scared because crime has gone up here and we have to be careful," Pissias says. "The people inside are scared, too. Some also don't feel like hearing carols. And they definitely don't have the money to spare."

Carolers Get Less

Yolanda Mouzakiti, 9, says she also sees that people are giving less this year. Trailed by her mother, she is caroling to Ourania Godeva, who works in a craft shop in Yolanda's apartment building. Godeva opens the cash register and gives the girl 2 euros ($2.60). In the past, when business was better, she says, she might have given 5 euros ($6.50).

"It's true, people aren't giving as much money this year, but caroling is a tradition," Godeva says. "If shopkeepers run out of money, I've seen them give children other stuff, like an orange soda or chocolates."

Eirini and Panagiotis Kabouri, 9-year-old fraternal twins, like the chocolates, but they really need the money. Their mother, Popi, lost her job as a maid a few months ago.

"There's a crisis even in caroling," Popi Kabouri says. "People can't give much. And we've only gone to shops because people won't let us into their homes."

Eirini and Panagiotis make about 40 euros ($52) from their day of caroling — less than half what they made last year. Before the long bus trip home, they stop for cotton candy near a sad-looking Santa ringing a bell.

It's a cloudy day, and people are somber. And then, near an empty shopping center, they hear something beautiful.

It's a traditional carol from the city of Orestiada in northeastern Greece, sung by six young people from a theater troupe. One of them is playing the gaida — it's like a bagpipe — and people are clapping and dancing.

No one has shopping bags, but everyone is singing. Panagiotis and Eirini run to join the dance, and the crowd grows bigger and bigger.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Greece, caroling season runs through the Orthodox Christian holiday known as Epiphany. It's celebrated on January 6th. Children go door-to-door singing songs of the season. They try to raise money for presents. But this year, austerity has dampened everyone's spirits. Joanna Kakissis has this postcard from Athens.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Three 11-year-old girls are jangling triangles and caroling outside a worn-out apartment building in their neighborhood. The song is called "Kalin Esperan Arhontes." It's a joyous greeting for those who open their homes to holiday cheer.

But there's not much cheer in Athens this year. The girls are singing outside because no one in this building will let them in.

ALEXANDRA BOROZON: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: Some people let us in with love, and others just don't answer the door, says Alexandra Borozon, one of the girls. Are you scared to go inside, I ask? Our dads are watching over there, says another girl, Stella Tsega. She points to two burly men standing just a few steps away. One is Vangelis Pissias, a 56-year-old architect.

VANGELIS PISSIAS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: We're scared because crime has gone up here, and we have to be careful, he says. The people inside are scared too. Some also don't feel like hearing carols, and they definitely don't have the money to spare.

YOLANDA MOUZAKITI: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Yolanda Mouzakiti is nine years old, and she also sees that people are giving less this year. Trailed by her mother, she's caroling to Ourania Godeva, who works in a craft shop in Yolanda's apartment building. Ourania opens the cash register and gives the girl two euros.

OURANIA GODEVA: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: It's true, people aren't giving as much money this year, but caroling is a tradition. If shopkeepers run out of money, I've seen them give children other stuff, like an orange soda or chocolates.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: Eirini and Panagiotis Kabouri like the chocolates but they really need the money. Their mother, Popi, lost her job as a maid a few months ago.

POPI KABOURI: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: There's a crisis even in caroling, Popi says. People can't give much. And we've only gone to shops because people won't let us into their homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

KAKISSIS: Eirini and Panagiotis make about 40 euros from their day of caroling. Before the long bus trip home, they stop for cotton candy near a sad-looking Santa ringing a bell. It's a cloudy day, and people are somber. And then, near an empty shopping center, they hear this...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: It's a traditional carol from northeastern Greece sung by six young people from a theater troupe. One of them is playing the gaida - it's like a bagpipe - and people are clapping and dancing. No one has shopping bags, but everyone is singing. Panagiotis and Eirini run to join the dance, and the crowd grows bigger and bigger.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.