Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christ at the Castle: Papadiamantis’ Tale Captures the Genuine Spirit of Christmas

Literary companionship with “the saint of Greek literature” Alexandros Papadiamantis is always a good idea, but especially beneficial during the holidays. Of course, the pious “kyr-Alexandros” covers all the holidays in the Orthodox calendar, but his Christmas stories offer a particularly seminal contribution towards recapturing the true meaning of the Nativity – “the metropolis of feasts” according to St. John Chrysostom.

Papadiamantis’ short stories do a masterful job of recounting the traditional Greek Orthodox ethos associated with this blessed feast, putting him on par with Dickens when it comes to extolling the virtues of Christmas. And while today’s world is still filled with plenty of Ebenezer Scrooges, it is increasingly hard to pinpoint some of Papadiamantis’ classic characters.

Of course, as historian Fotis Vasileiou points out, there are no good and bad guys in his works, but rather, people with virtues and weaknesses, which the author nonetheless approaches with the same love.

One of Papadiamantis’ Christmas stories, “Christ at the Castle” (Sto Christo sto Kastro), tells the story of a village priest from the island of Skiathos, Fr. Frangoulis, who tries to muster up support from the locals to celebrate the Christmas liturgy at the remote Church of the Nativity (otherwise known as “Christ at the Castle”), despite heavy snowfall rendering the roads untraversable. His impetus for doing so was two-fold: to bring help to two woodsmen who had gotten stranded near the Castle, and to fulfill the “tama,” or vow, that his wife had made the previous year for the health of their only son, who had fallen very ill.

The good Fr. Frangoulis was initially met with opposition and snickering from fellow villagers and even his family, who argued that the weather conditions were too bad and that the trip would be too risky.

Moreover, they blamed the woodsmen for failing to take proper precautions and for being foolhardy enough to go off so far in the winter to cut trees. Trying to justify their indifference or fear, the locals simply preferred to reason that the woodsmen “got what they deserved.”

After some clever arguing and appeals to the villagers’ philotimo and religious sentiments, in addition to the assurance of a local sea captain, Fr. Frangoulis manages to lead a group of 16 persons on this pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity by sea. The trip was not without danger. The stormy weather was accompanied by high winds and the villagers were exposed to the cold, wet sea for hours as Christmas Eve came and went. After taking the boat as far as it could go without risking a shipwreck, the pilgrims continued their pious journey on foot, like the Magi in search of the Christ child.

Papadiamantis tells us that “they reached the bridge of the Castle half drowned, cold, salty from the sea, and white from the snow, with lips purple from the cold, but with warm hearts.” There, they met the two stranded woodsmen, along with two shepherds. The women quickly began to clean the church, while the men built a fire in the courtyard. Fr. Frangoulis began preparations for the liturgy. Early into the service, however, the small congregation was distracted by cries of help from outside. The church filled again right before the end of the liturgy, as holy communion was being offered, and now the company had grown even larger. Captain Konstantis and his sailors made their way up to the church. Their boat, whose anchor had broken off, was adrift at sea and they would have nearly drowned had they not miraculously seen the fire that was lit outside of the Church of the Nativity, like the star of Bethlehem leading them to safety.

After the liturgy, the pilgrims celebrate. Like with every traditional feast, all the participants contribute something. The shepherds brought two baby goats, the woodsmen shared their salted quail, Captain Konstantis brought two full wineskins, chickens, eggs, and mackerel, “and everyone ate and made merry, celebrating Christmas with unique grandeur upon that barren rock.”

It’s worth noting that despite the complete absence of Christmas trees (not introduced to Greece until the arrival of King Otto; the traditional Greek decoration is a Christmas boat), lights, presents, sweets, holly, etc. the story still manages to capture the spirit of Christmas. The miraculous triumphs over the commercial, and yet none of the grandeur is lost.

In Papadiamantis’ world – a world that is lit with the light of Christ – there is room for everyone. Each one of the characters behaves and reacts in their own unique way, not trampling upon the personality of the other, irrespective of right and wrong, good and bad. Even the priest cedes his authority, refusing to pontificate and holding an equal discussion with his wife about whether or not their “tama” had to be completed this year and if Christ would make an exception due to the inclement weather.

But in the end, it is the liturgy (that age-old Greek identifier) that brings everyone together, and gives rise to the Christmas miracle. Like Fr. Frangoulis says “wherever there are good intentions, and one has a debt to repay – even if it’s hardiness – and in the event that we will be helping out people, as in this case, then God will come to our aid, against the weather, and against a thousand obstacles. There God will facilitate us greatly, even with miracles…”

May we all find our “Kastro” this Christmas and welcome the Christ-child with all our hearts.