Christmas in the Neighborhoods

Posted by: Maria Atalanti

Published on: 18/12/2023

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Christmas celebrations have many facets. There are religious Christmases, family Christmases, Christmases of humanity and solidarity, Christmases of consumerism, and Christmases of lights and brilliance. There are many forms and expressions of this tradition, bringing joy to some and sadness to others. However, I believe it is important to cherish the meaningful moments we experience during these days. So, I decided to share with you some special experiences in the narrow streets within the walls of Nicosia.

My city, Nicosia, for those who may not know, is an ancient city that served as the capital of Cyprus for a thousand years. It has witnessed conquerors, wars, and massacres, leaving behind their monuments and marks. Its main characteristic is the Venetian circular walls with heart-shaped bastions that enclose what we call the Old City. This city has been divided since 1963, separated by the “green line,” which, like a scar, splits the Greek Cypriot from the Turkish Cypriot sector. The closer one is to this line, the more one knows the authentic city and experiences the tragedy of our homeland.

In 1974, with the Turkish invasion, the inhabitants of the Old City, whose homes were adjacent to the “green line,” abandoned their houses and moved southward to other suburbs of Nicosia. The area began to resemble a ghost town, and over the years, the buildings, abandoned and crumbling, were decaying. At that time, Nicosia had an inspired mayor, Lellos Demetriades, who, after securing European and international funds and alienating a few abandoned houses, restored, and revitalized two neighborhoods of the city: Chrysaliniotissa and Agios Kassianos. New residents came to the area, and the streets began to come alive again.

I was an employee at Nicosia Municipality, and at some point in my duties, I was responsible for managing these houses along with other colleagues and a committee of municipal councillors. It was Christmas time in 2001 or 2002 when the committee’s president, Nikos Nouris, suggested that we should visit these areas and wish the residents and workers happy holidays on behalf of the municipality.

The day we chose was unusually cold for Cyprus, around 5 degrees Celsius, as the highest temperature. Almost no one came from the municipal councillors or the employees. There were only three of us: the president, Nikos Nouris, the councillor, Evi Kanari, and me. We bundled up in our warm clothes and walked through the narrow streets of the city. Many emotions had filled me, I don’t know how to describe, but I felt a magic within me, as if I was living in another era.

There were some old carpentry workshops, and somewhere people had lit a makeshift fire to warm themselves, and we approached them to wish them happy Christmas. They looked at us strangely, and someone even asked if we needed help! I remember we entered a kind of café where a girl was sitting and chatting with a man, and we scared them so much with our presence that they didn’t understand a word when Nikos Nouris spoke on behalf of Nicosia Municipality. They looked at us astonished. All of this seemed so strange to them. Regardless of their reaction, it was the first time I felt so connected to the old city and its residents.

The next Christmas, we decided to organize ourselves. Among the projects completed within the framework of the revival of these areas was a multipurpose center called “Polytergastiriaco”. There were some shops rented to crafts workers and artists and a small café managed by an Icelander who had been living in Cyprus for years: Inga. So, we organized a small celebration with Christmas treats and hot wine prepared by Inga. We invited a choir of children, the “Mikroi Ethelontes” (Little Volunteers), who were an excellent group with their teacher playing the guitar.

Simultaneously, almost without any budget, we prepared small cards with wishes that we made ourselves on the computer, a commemorative diploma for all the children who participated, signed by the then mayor Michalakis Zampelas, and small gifts to give to the residents of the area. I remember our entire budget was only a hundred euros.

That first year of the organized event, it was cold again. It was late afternoon, and it was raining. Besides our team, present were Mayor Michalakis Zampelas with his wife, former Mayor Lellos Demetriades, municipal councillors, and people from the area. The children sang Christmas carols; we gave them their diplomas, ate the delicious treats, drank the wine, and when the celebration was over, and it was time to start visiting the homes in the area, the rain stopped.

We walked through the narrow, damp, and empty streets of the Old City, with the low traditional houses and subtle lighting, a procession with happy children running ahead, Mayor Michalakis Zampelas pulling a toy cart, loaded with gifts, and behind him, all of us. The children knocked on the closed doors, and as soon as they opened, with the residents looking at us surprised, we all started singing carols together. Then, one of the children or even Mayor Zampelas himself gave them their gift, wished them happy Christmas, and we moved on to the next house.

Most of the residents in the area were elderly, forgotten, and alone. The presence of such a joyful company brought them great joy, especially that first year when they least expected it. Among them was Mrs. Maria Papadopoulou, a significant figure and community leader of the area who stayed after the Turkish invasion, supporting the other remaining residents. When we visited her, she was sick in bed. We entered her room, and we sang carols. She thanked us from the bottom of her heart. By the next year, she had already passed away.

As we walked through the narrow streets of the Old Town, we also passed by the churches of Chrysalliniotissa and Ayios Kassianos. Two very old churches with unique architecture and a contemplative atmosphere. We used to stop there and sing carols.

The church of Ayios Kassianos is located right on the green line, near the barbed wire. Next to it, there is a guard post of the National Guard, manned by young soldiers. In the darkness of the night and behind the guard post, one could discern the abandonment and misery of the dead zone, the separation of our city into two sides. We would stop singing and offer our small gift. It was a pleasant note for those young men in that lonely guard post, away from the glitter and lights of the city.

Apart from the elderly and soldiers, the residents living in the restored buildings of the Municipality opened their homes to us. Our tenants, as we called them. The most magical moment was when the door opened, and one could see the decorated tree under the arches of these houses. It looked like a scene from a Christmas card from another era. And we accompanied this beauty with Christmas melodies and wishes.

I write in a continuous tense because this tradition has been preserved for years. It might have stopped around 2017 or 2018. In the meantime, I had moved to another department, and the reins were taken over by Irene Achilleos along with Yiannis Klerides, who had been a member of the team much earlier. The main characteristic of the people involved was the passion, enthusiasm, and heartfelt organization of this event. The budget gradually increased, and the menu at the Polyergastiriako celebration became richer. The highlight of the evening was the soup made by Inka and served in cups, accompanied by warm wine. The choirs changed, and more children participated. However, the spirit remained the same—joyful, giving, and pure.

Gradually, the audience that followed enriched, and you could see young mothers pushing their strollers, walking the streets, and singing carols. There were also people who looked down on it because it didn’t have the glamor of events under the bright lights and the noise of the city. However, they never came to watch it, to follow the happy procession through the streets of the Old Town and sing carols to forgotten people.

Writing this text, I relived those moments, and a sweet warmth filled my heart. I heard the carols again and felt the enthusiasm of the children who didn’t want this procession to end. Many years have passed, and many of them may have become adults, but I am sure they will remember that day. Perhaps someday their steps will lead them there, to that corner of the city that few visit…

It is the place, however, where one can experience our city through time, see the shadows of the Frankish conquerors walking the streets, observe the influences of the Ottomans imprinted on the houses, and experience the dreadful separation of the city into Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot areas. There, humbly, and romantically, the history of our homeland is written.

 

The photo is a gracious donation from the Municipality of Nicosia.

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