Christmas in the time of financial crisis

As I’m about to follow the mental thread of Dimitris’s article on Christmas Past, the first thing I’d like to stress is the fact that, like it’s done in all other aspects of our lives, the financial crisis has left a solid mark on the way we celebrate Christmas. And it could not have happened any other way as the “holidays”, as we are used to name this festive season (essentially considering it the most important of the year), constitute a great part of our culture with a significant psychic and economic imprint.

The most important reason for the different character the holidays have acquired in the time of crisis is the fact that a great portion of the population (people who work in the public sector at large and pensioners) no longer receives the Christmas bonus – also called the 13th salary. And even when those working in the free market (be they professionals or simple employees) look upon the situation with a certain amount of schadenfreude, in the context of cannibalism that has been conveniently cultivated through the emergence of the elitist term “social automatism”, they cannot deny the indubitable fact that the Christmas bonus ended up right where they work: in the market. Clothes, shoes, toys, food, sweets, accessories; all these things were bought after the 16th of December, ergo accounts were credited with a whole extra salary. Let alone the fact that, along with these purchases, a number of other obligations were satisfied (vehicle tax, previous outstanding payments, etc.). And, of course, the bonus transfused warm money into children’s pockets – through the pocket money provided by grandparents and godparents and Christmas caroling, etc.; and, somehow, money circulated and everyone was happy.

But then came the referendum like an iron curtain and literally obliterated all this happiness. From being the best month of the year for the household budget, December became the worst: since now, without the transfusion of that bonus, Greeks still have to satisfy the holidays’ social and family obligations with a side dish of vehicle tax (at least). And this is how (in the painstaking way required for the assimilation of objective changes in the status quo) customs changed; and the way we spend the holidays changed along with them.

Starting from the festive table, it is calculated that the budget for it has undergone a certain shrinking. The three meat courses, that meant each family was exterminating an entire herd, gave way to well calculated quantities of controlled varieties of dishes. The multitude of cheese became one single cheese. The salads that could feed a flock (and always became leftovers) turned into one in the middle of the table. The cases of beers and bottles of fizzy drinks were forgotten in favor of some wine (as we suddenly discovered that fizzy drinks are not that good for us anyway). And, of course, there are no leftovers to feast on for the next three days anymore.

Regarding desserts, the mountains of home-made sweets, which required project management to be completed on time – in quantities enough for the whole family, counting the eight cousin once removed or every sister-in-law who might show up from the province – and which, come Epiphany, ended up in the waste-bin (with the walnut on the melomakarona now fully capable of breaking a molar), were replaced by “a kilo of each” kourabiedes and melomakarona from the nearest bakery (out of the multitude that grew like mushrooms in every neighborhood in the years of crisis, because bread is always a necessity or maybe because spinach pie is a way of showing affection) “because it’s customary”.

The heavy industry of children’s presents was replaced by the Chinese onslaught of various single use presents from a known chain store that, at the cost of 5 euros, made life easier for the godmother who has to provide pocket money for a long line of godchildren; godchildren she was more than happy to baptize before the crisis settled in, thus rubbing her social status in everyone’s face.

The singing of Christmas carols – a surrealistic leftover from another time (when children would wake up at the break of dawn to be the first ones to visit houses and thus get the better egg or sweet or walnuts) gave way to the image of bored teenagers, 1.90m. tall, with voices deformed from the hormonal party of pubescence, who ring the doorbells of total strangers on successive blocks of flats to “make loads of cash” and to the services of equally bored employees who didn’t get the day off, staying at work until late in the afternoon, trying to pay for their new smartphone by singing with a triangle from the same toy chain store previously mentioned. With the same complete lack of shame, teams of known social outcasts invade banks and stores with noisy accordions that reach the decibels of a Kusturica movie and clarinets straight out of a provincial summer meat market with a hog and a goat on the spit, to sing about the glory of newly born Christ with tons of piety and their eyes fixed on the empty register. Come to think of it, with most money being transferred through cards, thanks to the capital controls, you shouldn’t be surprised if you see people singing carols with a sign reading “We take debit cards” in hand.

When it comes to get-togethers, the name-days of Christos, Christina, Manolis, Vasiliki, Vasilis, Stephanos, Fofo, Fanis, Yannis, Ioanna, and so many others who happen to coincide with the fifteen days when the kallikantzaroi are dancing, from a saga of calories and banal pettiness (NASA has been asking for Yannakis; Still single? Etc.) they have become so-called “we are so above these things” attitude of the type “We won’t be celebrating this year” (instead escaping to the countryside or the nearest café), in order to avoid visitors and the cost of drinks and beers and beer nuts and other edibles, whose cost strangely has not followed our incomes’ downhill course and remain as expensive as they were in the glorious past. Not to mention the fact that we rarely have money to supply our block of flats with heating petrol because some people turn the heating on without paying for it and the management reserve has flown out the window: “We can’t invite auntie Doda, she’s old and really feels the cold and, besides, I can’t take all her comments after church.”

Conversations these days no longer circulate around the spicy life of prime ministers with much younger flight attendants; nor about the building of the new country-house. From “how much do you make?” through “are you working?” we have lately passed onto “are you getting paid?” Our common agreement that “politicians are all the same, really” does not mean that we didn’t attend the elections (albeit with a heavy heart) to cast our vote (whatever that was) so that “the others don’t take over again”. Men (who, a few years back, wouldn’t dream of making less than their wives) are kept by provider-women, stacks of bank letters for overdue payments are ending up in the drawer, new tablets form mum are bought at the expense of and unpaid emergency tax: an entire culture of broken promises, generalized and well-founded on the legitimate foundation of “they all lied to us”, is further pushed to the side during the holidays with wine the color of water-paint from the super market’s stock and frozen meat with (likewise) frozen salad from a bag.

Bouzoukia? Are you serious? The “Of course we’re going to…” whichever New Year’s Eve event happened to pass as the place to be (where second- and third-class celebrities were singing or presenting the show) became coupons for the nearby rempetiko-taverna with the fifth person of the company begging the doorman for entry. Five-day weekends of skiing in Arachova became one-day trips to Mt. Parnitha “so that the children can play a bit” with the eternal meat balls (accompanied by whole-grain crackers in the spirit of extravagance) in the tupperware. And of course the smug “Where are you going this year? We are…” became “Who has the energy for travel these days; we need some rest”.

Finally, we cannot neglect to mention the social media. Whereas, in the past, the family experienced the holidays in the living room or around the festive table, communicating in various degrees of surrealism but communicating live nonetheless, today we (and especially young people) experience the holidays through posts, comments, selfies with turkeys and decorative elves, photos, inboxes, duckfaces – thus recreating for the holidays the almost autistic model of (for want of a better word) communication of the rest of the year. The 10s Nomophobia has comfortably taken its seat at the festive table, uninvited yet inevitable; and we have to admit that even if we weren’t seated there too, with all our internet “friends”, we would still be online for another, always imperative, reason. Because addiction is autistic as well: it exists, first and foremost, for itself and secondly for all other implicated parties.

All these things would be nothing but absolutely depressing if we were still trapped in regarding the holidays as an extremely consumerist frenzy, an outbreak of our repressed by the crisis egotism on the little heroes of shops – the ever-present and immensely patient employees. The Western European holiday depression would be completely justified if we had the luxury to view the holidays as an excuse to solve our existential problems next to a tree decorated by 300 euros’ worth of ornaments, enough for decorating the tree at Syntagma Square as well.

However, in a rapidly ever changing world that brings us face to face with new realities in our immediate surroundings (the flow of refugees, etc.), these holidays constitute the perfect opportunity for re-evaluating our outlook; and this is not a cliché. Certainly not in the way of sugaring the pill of a misery that has to be rationalized so we can move on – but in the way of returning to the essence of these holidays. Because what else is Christmas if not love? So express it – in every way. Donate the clothes you’re not wearing to those who really need them. Meet with your loved ones and enjoy their company instead of half a kilo of blue cheese. Talk about your feelings: truly, instead of through the distorting lens of socially imposed petty vanity. Taste well-cooked food and not the image of hyperbole (quantitative and qualitative) in dishes; since, after the twentieth bite, no one is able to enjoy them anymore.

This is the only way to make a step towards maturity; one that it’s never too late to make. So that, in ten years’ time, we can look back and say “we went through rough times, but we emerged as better people”. Have a great holiday everyone!




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