A book by Marilyn Rouvelas explains the meaning and beauty of Greek customs, including Christmas and Dodecameron.
New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Even if Greek Christmas traditions and customs were well taught, there’s a classic book that is important to have on the shelf for times when want to be reminded of what your mother said. Even though it’s been consulted many times, my first edition of Marilyn Rouvelas’s classic, A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America, an illustrated book full of large, beautifully detailed drawings, is in perfect condition. I want it to last.
To look up the words of the hymns I YennisiSouand the KontakionI went to the section of the book titled Winter, containing Christmas, New Year, and Epiphany (Dodecameron), with the subheadings Christmas Lent, Significance and Church Services, the two hymns (in notation), Christmas Food and Festivities, the Kallikantzaroi Superstition, and Kalanda Christougennon in notation.
“My hope is that this book will explain the meaning and beauty of Greek customs and foster the appreciation they deserve. As a practical guide, it will provide useful information on those traditions and customs as practiced in America,” Rouvelas writes in the preface.
First printed in 1993, A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America was written none too soon. Rouvelas, who was Lutheran before she married a Greek American and converted to Orthodoxy in 1965, hopes that her book “will be helpful to non-Greeks who, like me, have converted to Greek Orthodoxy and/or married into the faith. This latter group is on the rise. Non-Greeks often feel excluded and perplexed because they do not understand the language or the traditions. Although not born Greek, they will see that they can share the Orthodox faith and recognize it as a powerful bond that transcends geography and ancestry.”
Curious about the research involved in writing her 320-page book, I contacted Rouvelas in Falls Church, Virginia and learned that her information gathering experiences were worthy of a book.
“My favorite part of writing A Guide to Greek Traditions in America was the lively discussions with the oral history group of twelve women tapped by our church’s Presvytera,” Rouvelas reminisces, “Like her, they had all been born and raised in Greece and had immigrated to America. What fun it was to turn on the tape recorder, ask a question like, ‘What did you do on Christmas Eve?” hear their responses, and see them recorded on that skinny brown tape inside cassettes, which I still have. When I got home after a meeting, I would replay the tape, take notes, type them up and have the ladies review them at the next meeting for accuracy and additions of beloved memories.”
Rouvelas remembers that the kalikantzaroi presented a problem, but was pleasantly solved. “I had difficulty understanding the goblins called kalikantzaroi that come to earth on December 25 to cause mischief and disrupt people’s lives with spilled milk, missing keys, etc.! A number ofthe ladies were also skeptical about them and objected to their going into the book. After all, this was superstition, and our Traditions book was about the Orthodox faith. Wouldn’t the Greeks appear as uneducated? However, I had a book entitled, Greek Calendar Customs by George Megas, a professor at the University of Athens, published by the Prime Minister’s Office of the Press and Information Department in 1958. It confirmed that the one of the customs at Christmas time in Greece was the appearance of the kalikantzaroi between December 24 and January 6. The ladies conceded to include it in the text for the sake of historical accuracy. After our Traditions book came out in the United States, the kalikantzaroi were new to most Greek Americans. This was one tradition that didn’t hadn’t made it across the Atlantic. And the beloved kalanda tradition barely made it across, also. While children in Greek schools regularly perform it in America, the ladies lamented that it was simply not the same as when a whole village experiences caroling by its children on Christmas Eve, the joy of having them come to the door and treating them with sweets.”
“Another tradition that most of the women had never heard of was a little poem popular in Constantinople recited at the cutting of Vasilopita: “I take the knife and put it in my father’s hand, so he can cut the Vasilopita and give one slice to me!” This was sweetly recited by a woman raised in Constantinople, and the other ladies explained to me that people from Constantinople, heirs to the Byzantine Empire and the seven ecumenical councils, were special. They knew best about keeping the Greek traditions. The poem was included.”
Cake or Bread? “The only standoff among the ladies was the recipe for the Vasilopita, the New Year’s bread with a coin baked inside. Oops, the word ‘bread’ is what started the disagreement. Some insisted the traditional Vasilopita is a bread; others said it should be a cake. Most of the women came from regions where it was a bread, but our Presvytera insisted it should be a cake, and after all she was the Presvytera. A compromise was reached and both the bread and cake recipes were included in the book. Since I came from the bread faction, I struggled with it every year; but once I tried the cake recipe, my family insisted I make it every year. You won, Presvytera!! Both recipes included the distinctive machlepi and masticha, and that’s what matters when it comes to Greek Christmas bread, Vasilopita, or Easter bread.”
“Despite the women’s insistence that they didn’t want superstitions included in the book, they loved talking about their favorite New Year’s Day superstitions, including the belief that whatever you do on that day you will be doing all year, so be happy, don’t quarrel, see friends, eat plenty of food, and wear new clean clothes.”
“The women’s oral history group disbanded twenty-four years ago when the book went into publication mode that lasted a year,” said Rouvelas, “I miss our good times together and may put on one of the cassettes with the skinny brown tape if I can locate a cassette machine. I loved hearing their ‘Chonia Polla, honey’ in Greek!”