Maspeth living room is transformed into a Thanksgiving
dining room that can seat visiting family. Tribune
photo By Brian M. Rafferty
A Taste Of The Old Country In Queens
By BRAD GROZNIK
In the old country, as many Greek-Americans say, things are different.
For the most part, Greeks in the United States have assimilated to American culture. They look American, speak with American accents, go to the same schools and watch the same things on television. So it took a movie called "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" for America to realize Greeks are still very much, well, Greek - and maybe we should get to know our neighbors a little better.
Over the holidays, Queens' Greek population celebrates much like the rest of America. They shop at Macy's and decorate Christmas trees in their living rooms, but for those who identify as Greek Orthodox, the holiday season is more than "It's a Wonderful Life."
A Storied History
The first Greeks came to the Americas in 1768, landing in St. Augustine, Fla. However, it was not until 1864 that that the first Greek Orthodox community was founded in New Orleans. The first permanent community was established in New York City in 1892 and recognized by the state in 1922. Any Eastern Orthodox Church that is ethnically Greek and uses a Greek liturgy may be considered "Greek Orthodox."
The holiday season for Greeks begins 40 days before Dec. 25, said Pastor Paul Palesty, of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Flushing. During this time Greeks fast much like during Lent in order to prepare for the celebration of the Christ Child. The fast begins Nov. 15 and is much like an Advent calendar in Western societies without the chocolate, Palesty said.
On the Sundays preceding Christmas, Greek Orthodox churches emphasize the link between the Bible's Old and New Testaments.
During this time, Palesty said he looks forward to eating Christopsomo, or Christ's Bread. The bread is considered a sacred tradition in many Greek Orthodox homes. Only the purest ingredients are used as it is said, the amount of care put into making the bread will ensure the well-being of the home in the year to come.
According to about.com, the bread is often decorated with pieces of dough formed into representations of the family's life (boats, animals, etc.).
On Christmas Eve, Greeks congregate at church to worship with readings from the Great or Royal Hours, the Great Vespers and the Liturgy of Saint Basil.
Palesty said Greeks tend to focus on the God's incarnation and not just the niceties of the Christmas Story.
"What Christmas means is how God became man so man could become God," he said.
After the traditional service, the Flushing church has grown accustomed to the children reenacting the Nativity.
Palesty added Greeks tend to associate with the Icon of the Nativity over any three-dimensional representation.
"It expresses the warmth, intimacy and sorrow that you can't capture in stone," he said.
Historically, Orthodox Churches began worshiping flat renderings of God and the Nativity as to separate it from the pagan statues worshiped by the Romans, Palesty said.
The Christmas Eve service ends late and many do not make it home until midnight, Palesty said. For his family, this is the time they come home to Avgolemono, traditional Geek egg-lemon soup because the fast is lifted after the service.
Others like Mary Sfiroudis, of Flushing, will prepare the table with a feast before leaving for the Christmas Eve service.
"Now that the children are older," she said. "We'll be up to three or four in the morning."
In terms of traditional foods, Sfiroudis said she tries to make head cheese just like her mother did when she was growing up.
Head cheese is eaten throughout Europe but is not really a cheese at all. In fact, it is usually made from the head of a calf or pig that would otherwise be tossed out and looks more like deli meat. Sfiroudis said she makes it with pigs' knuckles and lots of garlic, which also is very common.
Christmas Eve is also when Sfiroudis used to decorate the tree.
"We told the kids Santa decorated it," she said.
But as her kids got older, they now set up and decorate the tree soon after Thanksgiving.
"It was a lot of work, decorating that tree so late," she said.
On The Big Day
On Christmas Day the Church holds a morning and evening service. Generally, presents also are opened in the morning.
"In the old country, the service began just before dawn," Palesty said. "So when it was over God's light shined."
On this day, Pastors read the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Many traditional Christmas chorales are sung but many non-Western ones are sung, in English and Greek, as well.
Eugenon Condiles, of Flushing, said she will attend the Christmas Eve service and go to her sister's home Christmas Day. Visited by more than 50 people, Condiles said her sister's home has hosted the family for years.
"Dinner can last a very long time," she said. "It's a lot of fun."
Keeping A Focus
Christine Protan, of Flushing, celebrates her birthday with her grandson on Dec. 25.
"His name is Christian and mine is Christine, you see," she said.
The Protan family also gathers together on Christmas day to celebrate. But Protan said they always remember that it is a deeply religious holiday.
"It's all about selling now and commercialism," she said. "For Greeks, it is very spiritual."
Palesty said Greeks treat the holiday as a strongly religious holiday but has seen much of the commercialism of Christmas taking a larger role over the years.
"In the old country, it's still a very religious time."
The weeks following Christmas are also important to the Greek Orthodox Church and culminate on Jan. 6 with the feast of the Epiphany. In some cultures, this is celebrated as Three Kings Day, but the Greeks recognize it as the day Jesus was baptized, beginning his ministry for three years that ended with his human death on the cross.
"For Greeks, this is the real holiday," Palesty said.