Thanks to our Lord, I’ve lived, or flourished rather, for 80 Christmases, 78 of which I can only describe as brilliant. Two stand out as extremely sad and very bleak: December 25, 1944, and December 25, 1984.
Christmas Day 1944 must rank as the worst in Greek modern history. After a six-month war against both Axis powers and a four-year German occupation, Greece was finally liberated by British troops, only for the capital Athens to be plunged into a vicious civil war, as communist guerrillas had come down from the mountains and were attempting to take over the fragile state by force of arms.
Christmas Day I remember well. My father, a reserve officer and a major industrialist whom the commies would have given their right arm to capture, had left us the night before for the trenches in the foothills of the Acropolis, where a small police force and reserve army officers were making a last stand against the encircling guerrillas. My mother was in hysterics and begged him not to go. He actually lost his temper with her crying and forgot to tell my brother and myself goodbye.
Although Athens was as bleak a landscape as only a civil war can render, he had crossed enemy lines, had been nicked by a stray bullet, and the day before had shot dead a greasy-haired man in a raincoat and carrying a rifle, just as he was about to throw some projectile against our house. (The man lay there for days afterwards.)
The morning of December 25 was a grey and rainy one. When my German nanny woke me up she had a big smile on her face. “Open it,” she told me, handing me a small box tied with a ribbon. Inside I found a watch, my first ever, and it even had a reddish face and a chronometer. I thought I would die of pleasure. That’s why Dad had crossed the lines to visit us: to bring us presents. I’ve often wondered since where and how he got it. My watch was new, which means he had not taken it off some corpse, but all shops were closed and there were no watches for sale to begin with. Somehow old Dad managed it.
Watch or no watch, it was still a very grim time. The battle for Athens waged back and forth for three weeks, our house never coming close to being attacked, except for distant machine-gun fire occasionally hitting it, as it was close to the British embassy and Winston Churchill himself had suddenly dropped in to handle the negotiations. Another strong memory is walking in the royal gardens, next to the winter palace, and being unable to play because of the horrible smell of dead bodies. (The gardens were used as a dumping ground for the dead by both nationalists and communists.) My Fräulein nanny was particularly upset about that. The dead deserve a Christian burial, she said.
The battle for Athens was over soon after, and the commies were allowed to retreat up north, where they battled the Greek army for another, long, four to eight years, depending whose history one believes. I returned to school and resumed playing in the royal gardens, not giving a thought to past smells. That is why it’s so much fun to be eight years old. Nothing sticks.
Forty years later, bleakness and despair struck again. On Christmas Day I was up earlier than usual and tried to look out from my cell to see what kind of day it was. Surprise, surprise, it was rainy and grey. But this was not sunny Athens but London, and I was in Pentonville Prison doing four months bird for having a couple of grams of cocaine on my person while disembarking at Heathrow. Then all hell broke loose.
The Salvation Army goes to prisons on that holiest of days and plays carols and other inspirational tunes. It is supposed to bring some joy to the miserable souls doing time. It certainly brought a tear to my eyes as my thoughts raced back to my home and family. Unfortunately, the carols did not have the same effect with the rest of the prison population, most of them recidivists, who screamed the F-word in order to drown out the well-meaning band.
When I asked one of the “screws” who had been very kind to me the reason for such a reaction, he gave me a wintry smile and asked how many times I had been inside.
“First and last, I hope,” I answered.
“It’s like this,” he said. “When they do time the best way to do it is by not counting. The Salvation Army band reminds them that it’s a special day and that’s no good, as they’re locked up inside. Some are doing 10 years, others 20, they don’t want to know.”
I suppose it made sense, but as it was my first and last Christmas inside, I gave it special attention and even hummed along to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Incidentally, I haven’t been back since.
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