I have decided to defy local advice and spend Christmas here, alone. Despite being expressly warned against doing so. It was Vangelis who issued this warning when he last picked me up from the port.
‘I can see that you’ve got a good thing going,’ he praised me, ‘but don’t get any ideas about Christmas. That’s when it gets really hardcore. Everyone that you see here now? They’ll all be gone.’
This is an island that relies, largely, on tourism, and the locals need to be around for Easter and the summer season. Christmas is the only holiday they can get away, and they do.
‘I know you,’ Vangelis added, making me smile. ‘You’re thinking about it. Don’t do it.’
But do it I will. I think all the praise has gone to my head and is making me reckless. Only last week, I was pronounced an authentic Sifniot, by a man who is a Sifnos tradition in himself: Marios, proprietor of the legendary general store “A Bit Of Everything”. The shop is closed for the winter, as the locals have little need for postcards of chisel-chested Greek lovers smirking seductively against a background of bright blue sky, but Vangelis lives in the back, and I saw him coming out of his door one morning, on my way to the square. I stopped to say hello.
He did a double take. ‘You haven’t left?’ he said.
I shook my head and stood before him, with my arms held out, to demonstrate my continued presence on the island.
‘Your family?’ he asked.
‘But you have stayed. You’re an authentic Sifniot, you are.’
High praise indeed. And that’s not all, because, two weeks ago, I can now reveal, I was admitted to the royal court of Sifnos by peeing on the beach. There was no ceremony, on account of the fact that there was nobody around to witness this act, which is also the reason I was able to perform it. I had walked six kilometres to the port, and had enjoyed three cups of coffee in quick succession before leaving the house. My bladder dictated the rest. I found a bush and I crouched, and I became Sifnos royalty. Not Queen: you don’t get the crown for squatting behind a bush. But a lady-in-waiting, at the very least. Despite my most unladylike behaviour.
It’s true that the island empties out over the Christmas holidays. Polyna confirmed it. She was telling me about a soup kitchen she and some friends will run for two weeks from mid-December, to provide meals for those in need. They started it last year and sixty people turned up daily; this year, they expect closer to a hundred.
‘But if there are that many people that need help, wouldn’t it make more sense to do it once a week throughout the year, instead of two weeks running over Christmas?’ I asked.
‘You’d think,’ said Polyna, ‘but the neighbours help them out during the year. The neighbourhood takes care of them. But they all go away for the holidays, and these people have nothing to eat.’
A sad fact, but also a happy one: for fifty weeks out of the year, there is such a thing as a neighbourhood here.
My neighbourhood is empty already, so I don’t think I’ll notice much of a difference. I’m pretty sure Mrs Souli won’t be going skiing for her holidays, and neither will Vangelia. All the shops will be closed for a couple of days, so I’ll have to get my supplies and cigarettes in advance, but I think that’s it: my Christmas, planned.
I think I like the idea of the 25th of December being just another day. ‘It might be liberating,’ Eileen said when I told her; I think it will. It’ll be like an extra day in the year, a day added to my calendar, almost brand new: Christmas without Christmas, a day I’ve never had before. I don’t like Christmas. In my experience, it’s been a day of have to, of dry turkey and presents that no one really wants. I love my family, but I can eat with them on any other day, and, besides, I have no presents to bring. I was thinking of going down to Kamares and picking sage from the side of the road: there’s a long stretch just as the sea comes into view where it grows wild and in abundance. I could hang it up to dry, and make bouquets and tie them up with ribbon; I think they’d make nice gifts. But I can give them later, it doesn’t have to be Christmas. They’ll keep.
I think I’d like to go into town on Christmas day, when everyone, those few who haven’t left, will be at home eating dinner with their families. To see Sifnos all decked out and twinkling for Christmas, with not a soul on the streets: that’s an image I’d like to have in my head. An image to come back to when I need something rare and unusual to counteract the hectic tedium of ordinary life.
I don’t like Christmas, but freed of the have to we might become reconciled. I might look at the decorations that are already appearing outside the houses, strange and colourful against the white, and see effort and beauty. I might look at the twinkling lights and just see twinkling lights. If I stripped it of its meaning, it might come to mean something else. Maybe I’ll come to like it, the 25th of December, reimagined. Maybe I’ll even take some sage bouquets over to Mrs Souli and Vangelia, or bake some cookies in the shape of stars. Maybe I’ll go up to Artemonas, to the annual Christmas Village, and wander around and look at ornaments and trinkets and smile, and wish people a happy Christmas.
It doesn’t have to be Christmas. I can get together with my family and friends on any day, and eat, and give out sage instead of presents. But I think I’d like to reclaim this day, the 25th of December, just this once, stripped of its meaning so that it means something to me, at last. Even if it’s just a day when I had nothing much to do, and had to do nothing: that’s better than turkey and presents. That’s liberating. Against local advice, I’d like to give it a try.
This was Day 83 of 100 days of solitude, written in December 2014. It is now December 22, 2017, and I’m about to spend my third Christmas in Sifnos. No one is advising me to leave, and I have no plans for Christmas day, thank you very much. Happy Christmas peeps!