What it means to be good

From 100 days of solitude , Day 88 (December 2014)

There is political drama going on in Sifnos, and Christmas is being cancelled. The Christmas Village will be a refugee camp and the village square a no man’s land of empty benches and the ghosts of Christmas lights. The weary travellers will have to find a different Bethlehem and the Three Wise Men another star to follow, and another place to deposit their gifts. Santa will not be visiting, because we’ve not been good.

This Christmas tale is set in the present, but it began many years ago, in 1958, when the local Mavromatis family donated the thus far privately owned square in Apollonia to the people of Sifnos for the erection of a World War II memorial. Legal reasons meant that the space was signed over to the Sifnos Association rather than the local government, but it was the donors’ intention and everyone’s understanding that it would belong to the residents of the island. It was soon established as the village square and known to all as Heroes’ Square, in remembrance of the fallen. Like village squares everywhere, it became the hub of the community: a place to meet and a place to rest, with small children kicking pine cones and balls around, older children loitering, old men taking strolls with their arms folded behind their backs, and lovers holding hands on the benches. The Municipality of Sifnos kept it clean and lit up and everyone was happy, and for the last three years running, a makeshift barn has welcomed Jesus, Mary and Joseph and a variety of farm animals, and the stars suspended from lampposts and trees have led the faithful, the uncertain and the wise, the people of Sifnos, to the annual Christmas Village.
    Not this year. This year the square will not be visited by Three Wise Men bearing gifts, but haunted by the Three Ghosts of Christmas. This year, the Sifnos Association decided, in the spirit of Christmas and community, to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. As preparations for the Christmas Village began, the president of the Sifnos Association sent a letter to the Municipality, stating that the legal documents establishing ownership of the square had been interpreted in bad faith and that the square itself, which is the legal property of the Association, could henceforth not be used by the Municipality (and, by extension, one might surmise, the people themselves) in any way without prior written permission from the former, and threatening legal action if a violation occurred.
    The Municipality argued, reasonably, that the property in question is the island’s main square and belongs to its residents, as per the donors’ express wishes, as it always has. They would not be bullied, and the Village that hosts Christmas would be built in the Heroes’ Square, this year like all the years before it.

Picture the scene: a small village square in a small, quiet island. A mellow Thursday afternoon in December, low breeze, thin clouds, a pale and patchy sunshine. A handful of people gathered together, laughing, making jokes, as they work to put together the structures that will turn the square into a Christmas Village, where children will meet the baby Jesus and play games and sing carols, and their parents will drink wine and catch up with their friends, and a few loners, like me, will wander around and look at the lights and think that maybe Christmas is not so bad, after all. And Santa might visit, they say, if we’re good.
    But we’ve not been good, because what happens next in this Christmas fable is a lawsuit against the Municipality. The Sifnos Association now casts itself in the role of the Grinch that stole Christmas, and the local police are forced to play the villains and arrest the Mayor at the square, as he oversees the work. He is taken to the station and held for four hours, whereupon he is released by authority of the Assistant District Attorney, remotely, from the island of Syros. The court in Syros issues a temporary injunction against the Municipality of Sifnos, forbidding any use of the square pending a final decision on the matter, on December 12. But the Mayor will not be bullied; he won’t give up, he tells the court, he won’t back down. Heroically, but I don’t think he wants to be a hero. There are no heroes in this story, except the ones remembered in the square.

The Christmas stars still shine but they don’t lead to Bethlehem. The square is haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the Ghost of Christmas Present lingers in the skeletons of the structures of the would-be Christmas Village, left behind. The Heroes are lonely; none of us are allowed to visit them. We come, the faithful and the uncertain, the people of this island; we follow the stars and stand on the perimeter of the square we cannot enter. We don’t sing carols. We don’t bring gifts. We stand in silence and wait for the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, if it comes, if the court in Syros decides to let it through.
    The stars still shine but there are no wise men. There are no heroes in this story, yet. And there should be no villains, either, no Grinch, no Ebenezer Scrooge, no ghosts haunting the square. There should be no Municipality and no Association, just people of this island with nothing to divide. And men would be wise to remember what this is all about: not politics, not ownership, not even Christmas, but community, and a good faith that has nothing to do with contracts or which god you believe in. They would be wise to look at the stars and see some sense. There is still time for a Christmas miracle, and if the men stop behaving like fools there might be heroes yet, and the Christmas Yet To Come will not be a ghost but a village square dressed up in lights and tinsel, where the faithful and the uncertain, the families and the loners, the heroes and the wise will all come together and sing carols and remember what this is all about, and what it means to be good.


This is Day 88 from 100 days of solitude. Click here to view the book on Amazon. It’s on a Kindle Monthly Deal and only 99p throughout December.