By Andy Dabilis
There’s no Christmas tree this year in Syntagma Square, the heart of Athens, the place where six months ago police turned tear gas and batons on people protesting pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and layoffs.
Schoolchildren have decorated trees in the square with painted and crafted recycled cans and ornaments as Greeks try to celebrate — as best they can — the alternative Christmas of Austerity. After a year in which 320,000 people lost their jobs and 500,000 fled the country in search of a better life, it’s not what St. Nicholas, the patron of Christmas here, had in mind.
There are fewer lights and signs of the holiday too, as the city and many of its inhabitants, as across Greece, can’t afford Christmas and have taken to hunkering down instead of singing for joy, and merchants fear they will join the long list of more than 100,000 that have closed.
Bonuses for public workers were cut 75%, and even the usually well-traveled shopping streets had far fewer shoppers.
Workers also got hit with a “solidarity” income tax surcharge bigger than their bonus, wiping out their shopping plans.
A coalition government is trying to negotiate a second bailout of 130 billion euros after a first of 109 billion that came with austerity measures attached, created a deep recession and seems set to permanently lower the lifestyle of all but Greece’s rich elite and politicians.
Business is terrible for many storeowners. At Leonidas Chocolates near Syntagma, clerk Theodora Papadaki said business is down more than 40%, and regular customers and companies have cut back on orders.
“This isn’t something you buy on a daily basis like bread and milk,” she told SETimes. “They want to feel better and spend, but they have so many bills,” she sighed.
In nearby Monastiraki, adjacent to the tourist area of Plaka, a series of stores and street craftsmen sell lower-end goods than the big department stores. Katirena Chourea, 33, walked by with a single shopping bag. It carried socks she bought — using a credit card.
“I buy fewer things and I count coins,” she told SETimes, adding that, like many, she has cut back or eliminated gifts for friends and family this year, out of necessity.
Back in Syntagma, devoid of bliss despite the best efforts of children to compensate for the government’s failure to provide decorations across the street from parliament, a Santa was plunked down on a stage next to the decrepit, stagnant fountain that is the city’s centrepiece.
The water wasn’t running but a stream of children made their way up to present Christmas lists.
“I don’t want anything in particular,” one boy said into a microphone, drawing laughs. “I’ll keep that in mind,” Santa said, drawing more, a sweet moment of rare relief. His customers got a laugh, unlike the boy who wrote to a television station that what he wanted was something to eat, and others said they wrote Santa asking that their parents find a job.
But as Christmas is a season for commercialism as much as spirituality, even illegal immigrants get in on the act — pedaling counterfeit goods on sheets spread out on sidewalks, trying to lure shoppers gazing at windows and walking past them without buying despite sales up to 70% and more.
In one neighbourhood, Ali Rasalad, 26, from Pakistan, laid out a half dozen mechanical Santas but there were no buyers for the toys that he was selling for 3-4 euros. One man haggled and said he’d pay only 1 euro, but Rasalad shook his head “no.”
“I came here for a better life,” he told SETimes. “I didn’t know I wouldn’t find work here.”
The low-key Christmas was evident in the neighbourhoods too, although many tried to bring some cheer. At an elderly centre in Peristeri, a ten-minute Metro ride from downtown, carolers tried to cajole some spirit out of traditional songs before an audience of their peers.
Just down the street, about a kilometer away from parliament where lawmakers and employees are raking in full bonuses while denying others theirs, a group of college students stood before a small church at the end of Ermou Street dressed as Santas, singing.
People stopped, trying to catch the moment, the vibrance of youth captured on their faces, remembering better times. The students were led by Yury Kherimyan, 20, an Armenian who grew up in Sparta, where they know about defying odds.
“We want to give some sensation of joy so people can feel it’s Christmas,” he told SETimes. “In these times, it’s not good to think of yourselves,” he said.