The night was deliciously still, an occurrence rare in the Cyclades where summers are riotously gusty and winters prone to punishing gales. I was going to the island of Syros on the eve of the celebration of St. Nicholas on December 6th. I chose to arrive in a ship which was laboriously bound for Kavala in Northern Greece 26 hours after its arrival in Syros, stopping at several islands where it would disgorge a load of woe begotten teenage soldiers commencing their military service and a chorus of stout, black clad old ladies crocheting or knitting at ferocious speeds. The lack of internet on the vessel prevented my vigilant laptop from assailing me with mails, my weighty magazines remained unread and I fell asleep, my consciousness slipping away as into a warm bath.
As I disembarked I was confused. How could it be so balmy when the port was saluting me with a chaotic illumination of Christmas lights? The inclination to overdecorate for the Christmas holidays on the Greek islands is incongruous. As if Santa would forsake the snowy hillocks and ice crested firs of Lapland for the Cycladic islands such as Mykonos, Santorini and Syros which is the capital of the group. These in August are craggy, sun drenched and gorgeous but in winter are craggy, bleak and damp.
However winter has its beauty here and whilst the beaches are abandoned relics of insane vernal jollity, the sea still dazzles with its pristine clarity. Santa may fancy a change. Goats would replace his reindeer.
St. Nicholas, who died on December 6th 343, is the patron saint of sailors. During his voyage to Jerusalem, his ship was storm tossed and a sailor fell from its mast and was killed. After St. Nicholas' ardent prayers, the seas were calmed and the man resurrected. Because of its rich sea faring history, Greece has hundreds of churches named for him.
Almost all Greeks are named after a saint, therefore that saint's day is your "nameday" and easier to remember than a birthday. Prompts are available from interfering mother in laws and are emblazoned on electronic notice boards in the subway. Churches give out "eortologia" which provide daily ecclesiastical announcements concerning saints and lesser martyrs and indicate whether one should be eating, drinking and wishing or mourning, fasting and doing penance.
In Syros the church of St. Nicholas the Rich, faithful to its title, is a vaulting and cavernous space reminiscent of Western European Cathedrals with lustrous murals, fluted arches expansive balconies and a cerulean dome. Its gilded interior and gigantic scale invoke a mixture of amazement, admiration and awe.
It is not a place for devotees of minimalism however, being cluttered with silver icons and precious pendants from devotees. For the saint's celebration day there were additional embellishments such as floral tributes and tables loaded with loaves of bread, which wrapped tightly in cellophane, awaited the priests' blessing and were guarded by a cackle of vigilant but relatively friendly women.
The vespers on the night I arrived were restrained and moving. The liturgy the next day was preceded by a lengthy cadence of bell ringing and was then amplified through the neighbourhood known as Vaporia, meaning ships because ship owners have always lived here. My grandfather was one of these and his house is 2 doors down from the church, probably built in 1860.
My mother gifted it to me and inside it I have abandonned all notions of Zen vacuity. It is as unashamedly cluttered as the church itself. The furnishings are from my grandparents' day, heavy Greek Victoriana embellished by me with a stifling dose of English antiques. The house is also highly impractical. All ablutions are a daily challenge in the narrow slippery 17th century bronze tub and the dim bathroom lighting means I emerge from my make up table looking like a cross between a clown and Queen Elizabeth the First. However the high ceilings encrusted with mouldings and the fanciful paint effects compensate for the lack of a shower stall.
At noon I stepped out of the house's only relatively empty space, the white marble hallway, summoned by twenty minutes of relentless bell chiming. Whoever had failed to notice that this was a big Saint's day, a holiday with closed shops, shuttered offices and jubilantly liberated school children certainly knew it now. When we had tried to sand down the balcony railings that morning, surly and scandalized upturned faces bolstered by growls of disapproval made us scuttle inside. Even the dogs were silenced into a state of canine respect.
The Bishop of Syros' shiny black car dominated the street which offers no parking and the sonorous service began, grand and at high volume. What makes this liturgy exceptional is the transportation of the saint's life size silver icon down to the port of Hermoupolis. Apart from his marine connections, Saint Nicholas' other title is Nicholaos the Wonder Worker, "thaumatourgos" and he is said to put coins in the shoes of those who leave them out for him - though none were in evidence on the town's thresholds that day.
Normally with the daily arrival of each hulking ferry boat, the peripheral church of St. Dimitri welcomes their churning arrival with a peal of bells. Today all the ferries lurching side by side in the harbour were given a soniferous welcome by their saint's church.
The spectacle was fantastic. Enormous ships, oblivious of their daily schedules, squirted powerful water cannons into the air like ebullient whales while also releasing orange safety rockets and blowing their whistles vociferously. This interlude, under a curiosly hot sun, took at least 20 minutes and I observed it from the sun drenched terrace of our house, the stately church in front of me acknowledging the enthusiastic tributes from the ships below.
I have never seen the vast church of St. Nicholas filled with people which is what occurred the evening of the Saint's day. The eloquent and innovative bishop had organized a concert to celebrate the 400 years of the death of the painter Dominicus Theotokopoulos known as El Greco.
The nave was dramatically lit and a procession of the artist's expressive masterpieces flitted across a giant screen in front of the altar. The highlight of the evening was Anastasia Zannis, a Greek soprano who also sings cross over classical songs. Resplendent in a gown of heavy blue silk, she sang religious favourites such as Schubert's Ave Maria and Amazing Grace, backed by the excellent choir of the church whose voices provided a strong background to her soaring vocal clarity. The repertoire also included popular Italian and Greek songs and elicited much emotion and many tears from the audience. Anastasia radiated beauty not only from her face but from the warmth and feeling of her performance.
I shall remember that evening for many years. Above her head a beaten silver model of a ship dangled from an ornate chandelier, another reminder of St. Nicholas' role in the saintly pantheon. It made me think that as a ship glides into the infinite darkness of night, this church watches over it, an illuminated sentinel protecting the vessel and her seamen whenever the waves may take them.