Greece celebrates Epiphany with traditional ‘blessing of the waters’ ceremonies

Greece celebrated the religious holiday of Epiphany on Saturday with the traditional “blessing of the waters” ceremony at the country’s countless ports, harbours, lakes and reservoirs, with the nation’s political leadership also on hand at Church masses and at the water’s side.

The most prominent service was again celebrated at the port of Piraeus’ Metropolitan Cathedral and seafront, with Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Christodoulos officiating at the service, attended by President of the Republic Karolos Papoulias, Defence Minister Evangelos Meimarakis, who represented the Government, main opposition PASOK leader George Papandreou, former premier Costas Simitis and dozens of other government officials, MPs and local government office-holders. Most political leaders on hand expressed their best wishes for 2007.

On his part, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis attended Epiphany services near his home in the east Attica coastal town of Rafina, where he expressed his best seasons for the New Year, while emphasising the need for close ties between parents and children.

His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomeos officiated at a similar service in Constantinople [today’s Istanbul], the venerable Patriarchate’s seat.

Epiphany celebrations in Greece and Cyprus

Epiphany is a day full of symbolisms and traditions, during which our Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism in Jordan River by John the Baptist.

According to our popular tradition this is the day that the Elves, who have caused much discomfort to people during the holidays, leave the Earth. The celebration of this day has a particular protocol. In Athens, Mayor Bakoyannis will be present at the ceremony for the benediction of waters which will take place on Thursday at 10.30 in Dexameni in Kolonaki. After that, at 11.30, the Mayor will attend the ceremony taking place at the swimming pool of the National Gymnastics Club.

The feast of Epiphany is one of the oldest celebrations of the Christian Church. It was established in the 2nd century and it refers to the revelation of the Holy Trinity during Christ’s baptism. That is when the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove and sat on Jesus, while from above the voice of God was indicating Him as His beloved Son and His Chosen on Earth. It was established to be celebrated on January 6th, probably in order to coincide with the idolatrous celebrations of the early Christian years and to replace them.

During the first two centuries, the Christians also celebrated the Birth of Christ on the same day, but since the mid 4th century, when Pope Julius set December 25th as Christmas day, the feast of Epiphany has been celebrated separately. The Orthodox Church performs on this day the benediction of waters in the sea, in lakes, in rivers, even in water tanks. The name “Illuminations” (“Fota” in Greek), which we commonly use, has been established because on the day before the Epiphany the Church used to baptize the catechumen.

For all Greeks this day is connected with the casting of the Cross in the sea and with the effort of the bold ones to retrieve it from the – frozen this time of year – waters. The joy of the person who manages to get to the Cross first is a great one and the blessings of the priest accompany him for the whole year. On the day before the Epiphany, the neighborhood priest passes by the houses of his cogeneration in order to perform the customary blessing. It is the day that … the Elves fear the most – if we want to turn from our religious tradition to our folk one.

For more than two weeks the Elves are on Earth and they bother people with the capers they are pulling. During all these days they try to hurt people, but they do not succeed – clumsy as they are. The priest’s appearance in the houses on Epiphany day gives them the… finishing stroke and they disappear for once more in the bowels of the Earth. This is how the circle of tradition restarts until next Christmas when they will climb up again…

Do they know what Christmas is all about?

Christian children today do not know the real meaning of Christmas. They seem to think it’s about Santa Claus and Advent calendars. Others think it’s just a winter break from school when they’ll go on a skiing holiday with their parents.

They don’t actually realise that the Advent calendar is the countdown to Christmas Eve and Christ’s birth, but think it’s a countdown to Santa’s arrival.

Six-year-old Thomas said: “I love Christmas. Santa’s going to get me a new lego set and bicycle this year.” No mention of the baby Jesus, Bethlehem, a bright star in the East, or the three wise men. The child’s answer mirrors the results of a BBC poll last week, which found less than half of British children between the ages of seven and 11 were aware that Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Only 44 per cent of 1,063 children questioned understood that Christmas returns each year for the birth of Christ. Children from Northern Ireland were the most aware of the link, with 71 per cent giving the correct response.

Nicosia teacher Andy Metaxas said he believed the majority of school children in Cyprus were not too aware Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Christ either. “I’d say about 70 per cent are not aware,” he said.

The teacher said although the students were taken to church during the last week of Advent, he found that a lot of them paid no attention to what was going on and talked throughout the service. “Children just aren’t very religious any more. It’s all about going out, having a good time and presents. Although some are really religious, most aren’t really aware of what this season means.”

Undeniably exchanging of gifts has become an established part of the Christmas season throughout the Christian world. The BBC highlighted this aspect when it found that 63 per cent of children polled said they were saving money to buy gifts for their close friends, while 15 per cent said they spent more money on their mother, seven per cent spent more on their father, and 66 per cent spent equal amounts on both parents.

Metaxas said although he was not in agreement with religious instruction focusing on Christianity in schools, believing a more well rounded approach to different religions would promote greater tolerance, he said it was a shame that if people wanted to celebrate Christmas they didn’t know what it was. “If you’re going to be giving and receiving you should actually understand what all this giving and receiving means,” he said.

However, in a multicultural world it is becoming increasingly difficult to focus on the Christian aspect of Christmas.

Highgate School director Maria Theocharous said the fact that the school had pupils from a variety of different cultural and religious backgrounds made it difficult to focus on the purpose of Christmas. She said the birth of Christ was taught as part of the school curriculum during PSHE, Personal Social Health Education, which was taught once a week from reception right through to secondary school.

“From the beginning of December, the meaning of Christmas is filtered through, stating clearly the importance of kindness, sharing, promoting morality. We talk about why we celebrate Christmas and especially in the Greek classes we address the religious aspect. In the other class, we talk about the reasons rather than what it’s about.”

Theocharous said the reason for this was because the school tried to acknowledge and respect other religions and backgrounds. She said it was important to make children aware of other beliefs and celebrations because they had to learn that there were other beliefs out there and to learn to respect other people who were different.

“Respect leads to tolerance which leads to acceptance of society at large,” she said. “Children have the wonderful capacity of not being judgemental, and the ability of giving and receiving. Unfortunately it is we adults that encourage judgement because we do it and then children quickly become aware it.”

Nevertheless, despite the school’s liberal religious instruction, which includes an Easter festival week where all types of religions are talked about, Highgate still puts on nativity plays throughout the last week of term, with each age group putting on its own performance. As for Santa Claus, the school arranges for the man himself to make an appearance on the last day of term to give each child a gift.

“We’re not promoting the commercial aspect of Christmas, it’s just a lot of children won’t receive a present from Santa because their parents don’t celebrate Christmas so the school is the only link to Christmas celebrations,” she said.

Taking the Christ out of Christmas?

The missing Nativity scene from Nicosia’s Eleftheria Square aroused my suspicions that the War on Christmas might finally have reached our gloriously un-politically correct utopian backwater.

I began to survey the decorations and shop windows around town looking for signs that Christmas was being neutralised. Everything seemed normal, and the huge ‘Merry Christmas’ lights across the square were intact, but I was curious about the manger.

Nicos Karanikis from the Nicosia Municipality, however, assured us that the nativity scene still existed, but had been moved to the moat due to lack of space in the square. He was adamant the move had nothing to do with political correctness.

“We don’t suffer from that sickness yet,” he said.

Next it was time to check out the Christmas cards that were coming in, and to see what organisations and companies had decided to take Christ out of Christmas this year.

The card from the EU delegation was the least Christmassy. Depicting the Treaty of Rome anniversary message “Together since 1957”, the card simply said “Season’s Greetings” in all of the EU languages. “We must not imply anything religious on cards,” said a spokesman at the delegation. “There is a certain policy not to offend or show any religious leanings.”

A similar message came from the UN, understandable given its mandate. “The UN is non-denominational when it comes to greetings, which is related to the partiality of the UN,” said spokesman Brian Kelly.

Asked if there was any policy advice to local missions given that staff are usually of mixed nationalities and faiths, Kelly said he had not seen any nativity scenes in UNFICYP offices, but he had seen lots of Christmas trees. “A lot of Turkish Cypriots have a UK background so Christmas for them is part of the calendar,” he said.

The US Embassy said it didn’t have a secular policy as such, but had nevertheless always sent out cards saying “Happy New Year”. Staff are allowed to have decorations in their offices, a spokesman said.

The British bases, which also have mixed staff, say they are a little behind the UK when it comes to political correctness. “We still say Christmas greetings. We don’t try to be PC, but we respect the multicultural society in which we live,” said spokesman Dennis Barnes. He said the Turkish Cypriots who work in Dhekelia don’t have any problems and make no demands. “It’s still little England here where Christmas is still Christmas,” Barnes added.

Similarly, the British High Commission was not playing the PC card… literally, as a card depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus arrived. “There is no policy,” said spokesman Nigel Boud. “Our Foreign Office cards are overtly Christian and we don’t have any problems. We have non-Christian staff at the High Commission and their religious festivals are marked and celebrated and respected. I think the whole thing is exaggerated and the incidents are isolated incidents. Christmas is a Christian festival. It should be possible to celebrate it without anyone getting offended.”

The Israeli Embassy agreed. A spokesman said the embassy had held a small ceremony earlier in the week to celebrate Hanukkah. “Jewish people do not take exception to Christmas, although we are careful with the greeting cards we send since we don’t have Christmas,” said the spokesman. “The cards focus on happy new year or season’s greetings but we are not ultra sensitive. Lots of people send us Christmas cards and we are not offended. You have to be practical as well. Some people don’t know about Hanukkah. Sometimes the EU or US or the UK go too far with political correctness at this time of the year. They’ve taken the spirit out of Christmas.”

But one multinational company on the island said staff were told to be careful when choosing what cards to send locally. One option they were offered by the company “was not remotely related to Christmas” an employee said.

Sociologist Antonis Rafits said when people start being offended “we get into the realm of religious prejudice, which is not a good idea”. “Minority groups have the right not to celebrate but they should not be allowed to go against those who believe in Christmas,” he added.

Raftis said he did not agree with any policy that prevented a person of one faith from displaying their religious symbols in order to appease another. “But I don’t think this is too much of an issue in Cyprus,” he said.

The Reverend Steve Collis from St Paul’s Anglican Church said that in some instances Christians were trying hard to be reasonable when those from other faiths became offended. “A lot of people are looking to appease Islamic nations. I feel personally it’s gone too far because I have had Muslim friends sending me Christmas cards. They think we are being unwise. I feel very strongly we should show concern for others but there are some others that are trying to take it all away and neutralise Christmas,” he said.

The Reverend Collis said that instead of trying to take Christ out of Christmas, other faiths should be invited to join in. “What is going on is more of a political concern. Instead of taking Christ out of Christmas they should take politics out of Christmas,” he said.

Take 7 Mince Pies

Today’s traditional mince pies bear little resemblance to those enjoyed in the Middle Ages. Back then, mince pies were filled with minced meats, mostly game, plus liver and hearts. Various flavourings and spices enhanced the filling. Mince pies, having been banned with other Christmas celebrations by the Puritans in Oliver Cromwell’s time, came back into favour after the restoration in 1660. Their meat content also gradually changed, and has today virtually disappeared.

Walkers Glenfiddich > These combine the rich, all-butter shortbread of Walkers with succulent mincemeat that has been enriched with 12-year-old Glenfiddich Whisky. Generously sized mince pies come in foil cases but have plain tops with little steam holes. A good balance between pastry and filling, which is deliciously boozy with obvious fruit pieces, stem ginger included, and distinct flavours but the pastry verged on the tough. The package gives a good description of ingredients and heating guidelines. Price: £3.50 for 6 luxury mincemeat tarts.

Walkers > Baked in the heart of the Scottish highlands, Walkers mince pies have the crumbliest, melt-in-the-mouth pastry (although it is a touch too salty) with a sweet filling of mincemeat that’s loaded with fruit and flavour. Again the pies are a generous size, come in foil cases and have a plain top with little steam holes. Good description of ingredients and heating guidelines included on package. Price: £2.45 for 6 luxury mincemeat tarts.

Cole’s Traditional Foods > These come in a stylish container and are attractive, holly-decorated mince pies. The pies came in individual foil cases with a sprinkle of sugar. They are well cooked with a nice, golden colour but soggy pastry that was hard to swallow and left a salty aftertaste. The filling was rather dry, not as generous as one would have expected. Suitable for home freezing and vegetarians. Cannot warm in a microwave and may contain traces of nuts. Price: £3.25 for 4 cranberry mince pies with orange liqueur.

Pearl’s Luxury Deep Dish Mince Pie > “A rich and succulent luxury deep-dish mince pie,” proclaimed the package. A great disappointment once opened and cut. It resembled a shallow sponge cake in a tart case. There is hardly any mincemeat between the thin layer of shortcrust pastry and the crumbly sponge, topped with icing sugar. Overall, the pie has a distinctly artificial taste and texture. The appetising cover photograph with luscious filling was very misleading. Price: £1.45 for one, 6-inch pie.

Iceland > A pretty star decorates the top of these pies but they proved undercooked and difficult to get out of the foil cases in one piece. They definitely need more baking not just warming up. Soft, crumbly pastry and blunt, questionable filling. The package gives a good description of heating guidelines and ingredients. Among other things, it contains preservatives and citric acid. May contain coconut and nuts. Veggie friendly. Price: £1.39 for 6 deep fill mince pies.

Iceland > Shallow pastry cases and very basic appearance, in two packs of 6. Pale looking pastry, which perked up once warmed. Crumbly, overgenerous pastry with hardly a trace of filling. The mincemeat had a rather artificial smell and taste. May contain coconut and nuts. Veggie friendly. Price: £1.49 for 12 shallow mince pies.

Royale Bakeries > Shallow-pan mince pies with a nice golden colour and a light sprinkling of sugar. Attractive mince pies with a hole in the centre but no foil cases. Soft, sweet pastry (more like the texture of sweet bread or soft biscuit) that’s nothing like the rest of the mince pies. Good, generous filling but again with distinctive aromas. Overall, a good product but not as a mince pie. Lacking in packaging and information. It has to be one of the shortest ingredient lists ever: “Flour, yeast, sugar, mincemeat.” The only local made mince pies put to the test. Price: £1.30 for 4 mince pies.

Musical gifts for Christmas

The true Spirit of Christmas is generosity, so what could be better than a lifelong gift of music. Children, particularly, can be inspired by gifts which stimulate their music learning.

Children love films, especially if there are a lot of catchy tunes and movement involved. There are CDs which outline in a fun way the lives of important composers which can be followed in book form. The ultimate gift is probably the opportunity for children to learn a musical instrument, which will instil in them a deep appreciation of music, as well as discipline, and assist in their cognitive development. Adults too can reward themselves with this gift of learning an instrument, it’s never too late and opens many other interesting avenues. Or, what about joining a choir?

Subscriptions to music societies are a wonderful gift, which is mutually beneficial, both for the recipient, as a gift which lasts a year, and for the society, as they receive funding to bring out top artists. In Cyprus, the Pharos Trust and the Ledra Music Soloists both offer annual memberships. If it’s ballet that you love, the newly formed professional company Dancecyprus would be ideal. There are also courses in music appreciation held by U3A, with the next starting in January in Paphos.

Movies for Children >
Mary Poppins >
About two unruly children, Jane and Michael and their new nanny, Mary Poppins, who transforms their lives of these of their busy parents. Songs in this film will delight children of any age.

The Sound of Music > The story of Maria, a young nun who left the convent and went to work as a governess to seven high-spirited children. Their widowed father, Captain Von Trapp is a naval officer who runs his family military style and they fall in love. Lots of beautiful timeless music this is a must.

The Wizard of Oz > The story of a Dorothy, whisked away from her hometown by a tornado and transported to a strange place called Oz. She meets strange creatures and finds some real friends along the way. A classic adventure filled with memorable tunes your child will love.

Annie > The classic story of a red-haired orphan girl named Annie, who sings of her dreams to break away from her life in the orphanage, run by a very strict matron. Annie wins over the affection of a billionaire, who eventually adopts her. The songs featured are catchy and adorable.

Singing in the Rain > A funny film with lots of lively song and dance numbers, with great characters and a hart-warming story the whole family can enjoy. An of course, the unforgettable song Singing in the Rain.

CDs for Children > From the First Discovery Series, these CDs come with a book which follows an easy version of the life and music of composers like Vivaldi, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Debussy. They are available at £10 from Partassides Music House in Nicosia.

Games for Children > Domino type game where the whole family can join in to match the sounds on separate blocks (glockenspiel).

Subscription Offers
Pharos Trust –
www.thepharostrust.org > £40 annual membership for individuals, with various packages for individual and corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsors receive TV advertising and can also pass their benefits to employees as additional perks, while widening the cultural circle. Discounts on concerts, books and CDs for individuals.

Ledra Music Soloists – www.ledramusic.org > £15 annual subscription to be a Friend, as well as Sponsorship opportunities, or even part of the Elite circle. Discounts on music, books, travel for Friends.

Dancecyprus – www.dancecyprus.com > £25 annual membership to be a Friend, with company and patron opportunities. Discounted tickets, email updates, and invitations to meet artists. Company Member (£200 yearly), Patron Member (£2,000 yearly), Benefactor or Corporate Member (£5,000 yearly).

Online Magazine subscriptions > For those who are computer literate, it is easy to join the mailing list of radio stations like ClassicFM, who send weekly newsletters about concerts and special offers as well as societies of classical music, opera and ballet.

Books > Here, the list is truly endless, if you have no idea about classical music, an easy and light-hearted approach to the subject is definitely the Dummies series, Classical Music for Dummies. Or if you want to increase your existing skills, why not study the scores while listening to the CD, these come in a pack and offer popular works such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mozart 40 etc. With the internet, it is very easy to search and find almost any book you want, either new or second hand at greatly reduced prices.

CDs > For a Lifetime is a CD by Marilena Solomou, a young and extremely talented singer whose CD reflects a classical crossover genre. Easy and accessible listening making a perfect gift, available from All Records, Nicosia. My favourite website for classical music is www.hmv.co.uk where you can find box sets for incredible prices. Good recordings can be found with these box sets for 40 cents per CD. The best CDs for an introduction to classical music are compilations of excerpts covering a broad spectrum. 

DVDs > There are some wonderful DVDs which the whole family can enjoy, outlining aspects of specific composers, with their most well known works in the background. Handel, Bach, Rossini, Bizet and Johann Strauss available from Partassides Music House in Nicosia. Or, what about watching entire operas from the comfort of your home?

Instruments (based on prices from Partassides Music House) > Guitars > full size only and range in price from £30-£320. Mandolins > £75 and vary only in the decoration. Keyboard – from £100 for a full piano sized keyboard but an alternative could be to rent a piano. This eliminates large initial outlay. Woodwind instruments as well as brass instruments are also available.

Courses on Music > Pat Bates is beginning a new course in Paphos from January 2007 as part of the U3A programme and will take a light hearted look at “classical music” from Bach to Bernstein. It’s aimed at people interested in music and who would like to delve a little more deeply into the subject as well as be introduced to composers whom they might not otherwise have listened to. For further information, contact Pat Bates at batesgp@cytanet.com.cy or telephone at 99-922946.

Voluntary Work > If you are a musician, performing for those who are unable to go to concerts is very satisfying. What about arranging a concert at an old age home?

Radio > A portable radio makes a wonderful gift for young children and old alike. With the advent of television and the visual media, all too often the radio is forgotten but the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation offers classical music every day across its four radio channels. As you drive to work every morning, from 7-8am, tune into 88.2FM for an uninterrupted selection of the most popular classics. PMClassics on Channel 2 every weekday from 1.45pm-4pm. Programmes on Channel 1 (in Greek) every weekday from 9pm and Andreas Iacovides Monday to Saturday from 9.30am-10am.

Retailers waiting to see

While the signs are good, shop owners are waiting for people to spend their 13th salaries before deciding how good a Christmas we are having.

Cypriot retailers are expecting a good year of Christmas shopping as they approach the busiest shopping period of the year. Sales have been mostly satisfying for shopkeepers so far, and much more is expected with people receiving their 13th salaries in the coming days.

Petros Marcou of the Cyprus Consumers’ Association said he was confident that this year’s Christmas period would be a successful one.

“Sales up to now have been as expected. In the next few days, when the necessary money becomes available, they should begin to pick up. Consumers have been more interested in window shopping for now so that they can decide what they want to purchase for Christmas,” he said.

On the issue of competition, Marcou said there was still room for improvement. “There have been improvements in competition levels in the last few years but certainly it is not as high as we would want.”

And while this time of year tempts customers with many offers, Marcou called for caution. “People must examine each offer carefully as there is plenty of clever advertising that intends to manipulate customers.”

Consumers Union and Quality of Life President Lucas Aristodemou also gave out a stern warning to customers to beware of the traps of the market during this period.

“It has been evident in the last two years that greed gets the better of shopkeepers during Christmas. However, this year it appears that the situation is much better, with good prices, stronger competition and professionalism,” he said.

Aristodemou said price levels were encouraging. “This year’s prices are very logical, not exaggerated. There are some big retailers which have a policy of making good offers and sales even before Christmas, something that is the way of the market today,” he said.

Aristodemou added that despite the need to buy things for Christmas, many consumers, especially in Limassol and Paphos, were prepared to wait for the January sales to splash out.

Operations Manager of Marks and Spencer, Kyriacos Artemiou, declared himself extremely pleased with business so far. “Sales for this year have gone very well for us, up to this point I can say better than any other year in fact. Regarding prices, our prices are 10 per cent lower than last year,” he stated, adding it was not the company’s policy to discount ahead of Christmas.

However, Stathis Christodoulou, owner of a jewellery shop in Nicosia did not share the same optimism. “Prices have gone up considerably this year for our raw materials such as precious metals; and this has a negative effect on our business during this time of year in relation to previous years,” he said.

This period is usually the busiest and most important for jewellers, and Christodoulou feels no need for special offers. “Christmas is a time of year when we have customers, there is no need to do anything additional in order to attract them,” he said.

Other shopkeepers also expressed caution yesterday. A Mavros toy shop representative said business had started to pick up at the weekends and was likely to pick up in the final days to Christmas. “It’s already started picking up although it’s still quiet during the week. I think it’s because people haven’t yet received their 13th salaries yet. When they get them next week they’ll start shopping more. It’s how it is every year,” she said.

One of mobile retailer Germanos’ Nicosia outlets said they were still waiting for business to pick up. Asked whether he thought the slump in sales was related to the fact that people had not yet received their 13th salaries, he said “definitely”.

With excellent weather predicted for the next few days leading up to Christmas, unusual for this time of year, shopkeepers are bracing themselves for what they hope to be their busiest Christmas yet.

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