Christmas in Athens in 1915

On February 17, 1916, The Nation published in its “Foreign Correspondence” section a long essay by John A[lfred] Huybers, titled “Christmas in Athens.” Huybers is no stranger to this blog. Three years ago, I wrote an entire post about him, “On Finding Inspiration in Small Things: The Story of a Pencil Portrait,” after discovering a pencil sketch of Bert Hodge Hill by him.

An English Australian, Huybers earned his living as an illustrator in America, and from about 1915 until his death in 1920 as a foreign correspondent for The Nation and The Christian Science Monitor in Greece. He must have been friends with many members of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter ASCSA or the School) including Bert H. Hill, Carl W. Blegen, and Edward Capps. Capps, who became the School’s Chair of the Managing Committee in 1919, remembered Huybers in the ASCSA Annual Report for 1920-21 (p. 21) with mention of a fund created in his memory (the Huybers Fund amounted to $714.53 in 1921, which is the equivalent of about $18,000 today):

“[He] was for many years a resident of Greece, whence he sent to the American press, and particularly to the Christian Science Monitor, admirable articles on Greek affairs. He died at Phalerum in 1919 [sic]. His writings showed such admirable sanity of judgement, good information, and genuine philhellenic sympathy and understanding that his friends in America, chiefly those of Hellenic descent, desired to perpetuate his memory in connection with the School, which they highly regard as the permanent symbol in Greece of American-Hellenic unity. We are indebted to Professor A. E. Phoutrides of Harvard University, for conceiving this idea and carrying it to completion, and to His Excellency Mr. Tsamados, then Minister Resident of Greece in Washington for generous assistance. A principal fund of $545 was contributed.”

During my research on Huybers, I found sixteen of his essays in The Nation, including one about the American School, large parts of which l presented in my post of April 2019. Lately, I rediscovered in my notes another one he published in February 1916 after spending Christmas in Athens (since Greece was still following the “old calendar,” Christmas was celebrated thirteen days later, on January 6th).

Wanting to experience Christmas Eve shopping, Huybers took a walk on Athinas Street (described as Rue d’ Athènes) which was and still is the largest market: “Not merely the booths in the market, but all the surrounding shops are open, without windows. The places that are most crowded, where most business is being done, are the shops in which the different varieties of cheese and olives are sold, which, with the excellent bread, are the main staples of life in Greece.” He then proceeded to explain that sheep were not raised just for wool and meat, but also for their cheese, and one would be surprised “at the variety of delicious and wholesome cheeses made from their milk.”  

Cheese and meat stalls on Athinas Street in the early 1930s. ASCSA Archives, Charles and Janet Morgan Papers.

Huybers could not praise enough the staple Greek meal of bread, cheese, and olives. “I have watched at the Port of the Piraeus splendid examples of manhood, who have spent the morning hours hoisting and swinging great sacks of wheat and carrying them on their backs down and up the plank barefooted from ship or barge to the wharf, and then at noon have made their meal cheerfully of bread sheeps’ [sic] cheese, and olives.” The video below is an excerpt from Triumph Over Time, a movie that the School produced in 1947. Although it was filmed three decades later than Huybers’s description, the scene in the port of Piraeus is very similar to the one in 1915.

The fruit stands were full of oranges, mandarins, lemons, citrons, as well as almonds and walnuts. The only fruit missing was the apple. The only apple Huybers found in the market was “a very small, greenish-yellow in color, with red stripes,” sold at a high price which Huybers refused to pay. The apple he is describing is the φιρίκι (firiki, or Pijrus Malus) grown on Mount Pelion, a tree that produces fruit every other year. Until 1960, it was the only type of apple found in the Greek markets. “If it pays to export American and Canadian apples to South Africa, there ought to be an opening here for apples,” scribbled Huybers.

Market stall selling olives in the early 1930s. ASCSA Archives, Charles and Janet Morgan Papers.

On Christmas Eve of 1915, “most of the entrances of the shops and booths were decorated with an arch made of two great fronds of the palm tree, twelve and fourteen feet in length, and long ribbons of wax paper in happy combinations of color.” The custom of the Christmas tree did not spread in Greece until the 1930s (especially after WW II) although the upper class did see Christmas trees in the houses of the foreign ambassadors in Athens as early as in the 19th century. Story has it that the famous General Makriyannis after seeing one at the house of the Russian consul in Greece Ioannis Paparrigopoulos in 1843 commented: “It’s nice but I don’t like to keep trees in my room, only my guns.” Huybers, however, witnessed the arrival of donkeys in town loaded with pine shrubs which he interpreted “as Christmas trees and for decorations.” On December 22, 1915, Zillah Dinsmoor, wife of architect William Bell Dinsmoor and an expatriate, “went with Mrs. Droppers [the wife of the American Minister in Greece] to buy her Christmas tree and to get cases of soap to put in the children’s stockings and stuffing for the inevitable pin-cushions with which we will all be presented on Christmas afternoon” (ASCSA Archives, Zillah Pearce Dinsmoor Papers).

Strolling through the meat market Huybers commented on the young milk lambs hanging from the hooks. Although “the Greeks might be taxed with wastefulness” for doing so, “roasted to the right point such food might cause a vegetarian to backslide from his faith.” For this not to happen, Huybers suggested that one would have “to read anew Pythagoras’s plea for animal life and his denunciation of man and his appetite as the worst of the beasts of prey: Thou slay’st the lamb that looks thee in the face.”  

Huybers was further impressed by the open cook-shops with their big copper saucepans and charcoal furnaces underneath. “The cook will lift the different covers for you: there are spinach and rice cooked together, bean soup, different varieties of beans with flavoring with herbs and pure olive oil, potatoes cooked with some excellent sauce, macaroni, and twice a week a good fish soup, roast meats and fried fish.” To further note that “it was a pity that America, so generous in her gifts from her own soil, has no such restaurants.”

One last thing that impressed Huybers was the Christmas carols.

“An empty earthenware jar is slung over a boy’s shoulder; it is covered at the top with the dried skin of a sheep’s or pig’s bladder. He drums on it with the fingers of the two hands, and there being no bottom to the jar, its shape gives its resonance. The other boy strikes a triangle. The musical metallic sound of the one and the muffled sound of the other, accompanying the chant of their young voices, make the quaintest impression.”

The triangle has survived until today, but not the jar. I had to search old photos in order to discover this primitive musical instrument, and I found one in the Voula Papaioannou Photographic Collection at the Benaki Museum. The boy in the middle seems to be beating such a jar with the tips of his fingers.

We do not know how and where Huybers spent Christmas Day. Probably not at the American School, which was almost closed because of the War. In 1915-1916, there was only one student, Ralph W. Scott. The absence of students made it possible for Bert Hodge Hill, the School’s Director, and Carl W. Blegen, the Secretary, to go to the States for Christmas, and also to attend the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Princeton. Huybers might have been a guest at the American Minister’s house, or at the Dinsmoors who rented a house on Xenokratous Street, although his name was not included in Mrs. Dinmoor’s list of guests. Although she would have liked to ask more people for a second gathering in the evening, she couldn’t do it because “this year the gas was so poor we can scarcely see.”

Because of the War, the School would not resume its academic program until the fall of 1920. From the fall of 1918 through the spring of 1920, the School rented its facilities to the Greek Commission of the American Red Cross.


12 Comments on “Christmas in Athens in 1915”

  1. Glenn Bugh says:

    Wonderful human interest story, Natalia. A veritable Christmas gift to us all. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. And keep those blogs coming. Stay safe, Glenn

  2. I had missed the 2019 post on Huybers, but was wondering if by coincidence he maybe the artist H in the Cretan enigma, if he was around for Xmas in 1915.

  3. Maria Liston says:

    Thank you for yet another fascinating glimpse of the people in the the School’s past.

  4. Hello Natalia: thanks for this very interesting post. Love your posts in general.
    Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year
    from Melbourne, Australia.
    Garth

  5. Thanks Natalia, for both this and the earlier one on Huybers, which I had missed. Fascinating, as always. Happy Christmas.

  6. Nassos Papalexandrou says:

    Thanks, Natalia, for your insightful essay (as always!). In the early seventies, I was one of these kids with triangles who went from dοor to door singing carols on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve (early in the morning, to beat competition). The excerpt from AR 1920-21 mentions prof. Phoutrides as a contributor to the Huybers fund. Last summer I saw Phoutrides’ commemorative stele outside the Archaeological Museum at Hagios Kyrikos, Ikaria, inscribed with a funerary epigram composed by K. Palamas. I will sent the picture to you by email. Happy Holidays!

    • Thanks Nassos! I also used to sing carols με το τριγωνάκι when I was a child. Kids still do it but it has somehow lost its magic (to begin with, it is not as safe as it used to be). Thanks for the Icarian tip about Phoutrides. He is such an interesting case, and I wondered how much more he would have achieved if he had not died so young. Καλή Χρονιά!


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