16 December 2012

Christmas Past

This post was inspired by my dear friend Melanie, who recently lost her grandmother. xx

I grew up without grandparents, without any first cousins, or aunts and uncles that were my parents' siblings; and yet childhood Christmases were noisy, crowded affairs. In lieu of "close" family in Australia, our koumbari, our second and third cousins and our neighbours became our extended family. Every Greek woman was Thia, Aunt, and every Greek man, Thio, Uncle. Ties of blood were replaced by ties of proximity and a shared culture.
We didn't have a lot of money but food was plentiful: kreas, pastissio, salata, yemistes, tarama and big loaves of wog bread. I remember long neck bottles of Fosters or VB, and for the kids Tarax or Gold Medal soft drinks in bright colours: yellow, orange, crimson.
But my cousins and I couldn't wait for lunch to be over so we could hit the asphalt streets, and ride our Malvern Star bikes and red scooters at dizzying speeds. Back then there were no driveways leading from the houses to the street; everyone who had a car, and back then not everyone did, parked on the curb; so we could zoom up and down without fear. Indeed the road itself was virtually empty.
We would be called in for dessert: kourabiethes, baklava, the usual suspects. I remember one year Koumbara Soula brought a cake that she made from a packet. It was iced with chocolate frosting and multicoloured sprinkles. I thought her very modern. My mum insisted we make everything in the traditional way, with fresh eggs, milk, butter – boring!
After everyone had gone or we had left whoever's house we had been at, we would play with the toys we had received from Santa. For me this was often something arty: Derwent pencils, a sketch pad, or a new set of textas. I used these up quickly and had to resort to pulling the ends off the top and pouring in drops of water, to make them "go" for longer. It was a treat to have a new packet with bright, vivid colours.
One year I got a Dynamo label maker from Norman Brothers Stationers, at Northland. When my teacher at school found out, she asked me to make a set of spice labels for her – my parents were proud for me to oblige. Her husband was a VFL umpire. She showed us newspaper clippings of him behind the goal posts, wearing a long white coat, like he worked in a laboratory. Their life was unspeakably different from mine.
Now I have a family of my own. My daughter has grown up with her yiayia and pappou, and from my husband's side a devoted grandma. At Christmas lunch she will sit with my sister's children, her first cousins, who she adores. Afterwards they might shoot hoops in the back yard or play on their electronic devices – though they long to wander the street, unsupervised, as we did.
We do not invite the neighbours and not having been married in the Greek church, we have no koumbari. Sometimes I think my childhood was richer for the mish mash of people it involved. I remember the old lady I called "Yiayia", who lived across the road, and her grown-up daughter, at whose wedding I was flower girl; and "Pappou" was the lodger who slept in our spare room. He was  an old Greek man, divorced from his Australian wife.
"Yiayia" and "Pappou" were fond of me, but of course they never loved me in the same way my parents love my daughter. Seeing her with Mum and Dad brings home to me how much I missed, by not growing up with my grandparents.


  1. Oh come on...now you have me crying!!!

    I kid...well, not really, but I did tear up...and I smiled too! Thank you so much for all of your love and support this week! You may be on the other side of the world, but you were there for me and that speaks volumes!! xx

  2. A lot of good memories there. Finding baking from a packet exciting is funny and human. Do you not have the koumbari because you didn't meet these families through the church or because people are somewhat ostracizing you for not marrying in the community?

    1. Koumbari are the best man (or woman) from your wedding ceremony. They must be Orthodox (though not necessarily Greek) and traditional they christen your first child. We had Craig's brother and my sister as koumbari, but not quite the same. Often they are a best friend who becomes "family" in this way. Ours were already family.

      Thanks for your comment :-)

  3. love the pic Hariklia - you dad is soooo handsome and look at little Kostas!!! so jolly. You girls are pretty in your special frocks too. that is a frameworthy pic for sure! Grandparents are good to have around, my Nana died a few years ago now and I think of her at Christmas, and go to church Christmas Eve for her. I was also lucky enough to know her father, he died in 1972 at the age of 92. amazing. I loved reading this. xx

    1. Thanks Rebecca - we are both blessed with handsome fathers! And how wonderful to have known your great grandfather. x

  4. I LOVE this photograph! Great read Koumbara :)

  5. What a fascinating glimpse into immigrant culture - such a richness there!