Demre, Turkey: Santa Claus Will not Be Coming to this Town

“The first thing you see is barbed wire; a fence has been put up to keep looters out, although the gate is wide open, and there is very little left to loot.  Within the barbed wire enclosure are a caretaker’s cottage and a small shed.  Down a steep incline, some 15 or 20 feet below ground level, stands Hagios Nikolaos, the Church of Saint Nicholas.  Part of the left side of the church of St. Nicholas is still buried under silt, and the original entrance is inaccessible.  Access now is down the incline, past fallen columns and other archeological rubble.  The mosaic tiles on the floor are broken, filthy or missing; the frescoes that remain on the walls are faded and decayed; interior columns and capitals lie where they have fallen.  After we had prowled around the church for a while, the caretaker or guide entered.  In three trips to Turkey we have found bilingual and multilingual Turks in the most remote areas, but at this major Christian shrine in Anatolia the guide speaks only Turkish.  Anxious to help, however, he took us to the sarcophagus which we had already recognized as the one usually identified as the original tomb of St. Nicholas.  The guide pointed to it and spoke the only English he knew, ‘Santa Claus’.”

Thus reads in part a 1975-report prepared for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on the appalling conditions at the looted and neglected Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra, Asia Minor, or today’s Demre, Turkey.  Since this report was published, recognition of the enormous profit potential of exploiting this historic site as a tourist destination and as a public relations prop has led the Turkish authorities to steadily improve physical conditions at the Church of Saint Nicholas.  Yet, through the subsequent decades of tourist development at Demre, Turkey’s contemptuous disregard for the sacred character and cultural importance of the church at Myra and its saintly namesake has remained unchanged.

Nikolaos, or Nicholas, of Myra, was born in the city of Patara on the Lycian coast of Asia Minor around 275 AD, at a time when most of Asia Minor had been Greek for many centuries.  Born to a wealthy Christian family, Nicholas would become a beloved public figure during his lifetime and would be canonized as a saint after his death.  Revered among both his fellow Greek and other Christians for his dignified courage in the face of brutal persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian and renowned for his gift-giving and aid to children, the sick, and the poor, Nicholas became the immensely popular bishop of Myra, a port city near Patara.  According to most accounts of his life, Nicholas was present at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325, where he was a staunch defender of Orthodox Christian beliefs.  Saint Nicholas, is, of course, universally regarded as the inspiration for the legendary character known as Santa Claus, who brings Christmas gifts to children around the world.      

Nicholas was buried in his church—a Byzantine basilica—in Myra, which by the sixth century had become a well-known shrine and destination for religious pilgrims from throughout the Byzantine Empire and beyond.  Since 1087, however, the remains of Saint Nicholas have reposed principally in Bari, Italy.  In the spring of 1087, three ships with sailors and merchants from Bari returning home from trading in Antioch, anchored in Myra’s harbor.  The sailors—likely Greeks themselves, given that Bari and its surrounding region of Apulia were still predominantly Greek-speaking at that time—disembarked from their vessels, proceeded to the well-known church and shrine of Saint Nicholas and, acting like lawless pirates, broke open the saint’s tomb and spirited most of Nicholas’ bones away to their ships, narrowly escaping ahead of the local townspeople who were in pursuit of the thieves.  When the remains were safely landed in Bari in May, a solemn promise was made by the city’s people to build a magnificent church to honor Saint Nicholas.  A crypt to shelter the relics of the saint was consecrated in 1089.  Almost a century later, in 1197, the imposing and majestic Basilica di San Nicola was completed as the resting place for most of Saint Nicholas’ remains.  The basilica has served for more than eight centuries as a beautiful, sacred, dignified, and safe pilgrimage destination for both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

Until recently, Turkey had little interest in historic Myra, Saint Nicholas, his church, and his popular legacy as the ancestor of Santa Claus.  For most Turks, Myra was little more than yet another place name in a seemingly endless list of villages, towns, and cities ethnically cleansed of their original Greek inhabitants in the early 1920s, an uncomfortable local reminder of a Greek and Christian past in Asia Minor better erased and forgotten in the face of the Turkish national project.  Some of that, however, has changed as Turkey has developed a burgeoning tourism industry. 

In the last two decades, the Turkish state has aggressively coopted and marketed ancient Greek ruins and medieval Byzantine churches as “Turkish national and cultural treasures.”  Indeed, virtually the whole of Turkish international tourism is built on the exploitation of the physical remains of Greek civilization, ancient and medieval, in Istanbul and Asia Minor.  Notwithstanding this fact, the Greek and Orthodox Christian character of these historic sites are, as a matter of policy, negated by the Turkish authorities, that typically present such antiquities to unknowing foreign visitors as Hittite, Roman, “native Anatolian,” or simply Turkish in origin. 

Myra and Saint Nicholas have not escaped this state-coordinated policy.  The facilities around the Church of Saint Nicholas in Demre have been improved and expanded in order to profit from the rise in tourism to Turkey.  In its official publications, government website, and state-sponsored travel blogs, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism identifies the Greek city of Myra merely as a Lycian town.  Likewise, the Turkish Ministry sidesteps Saint Nicholas’ Greek and Orthodox Christian identity and distorts his image by labeling him, anachronistically, as a bishop from Turkey, using language sufficiently vague and misleading to leave uniformed readers with the imprecision that Saint Nicholas was a Turk.

Having declared Saint Nicholas Turkish national patrimony, the Turkish state has launched a campaign to take possession of the saint’s remains.  In a BBC piece, filed in December 2009, by Istanbul-based journalist, Jonathan Head, the writer noted that “even without the bones, the town of Demre has not been shy about cashing in on its most famous native son—today visitors to the Byzantine church there are greeted by a large, plastic Santa statue, complete with beard and red snow-suit.”  This vulgar, insulting statue was later removed from the grounds outside the Church of Saint Nicholas under pressure from the Russian government.  In January 2013, the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ertugul Gunay, told reporters about his government’s claims on the relics of Saint Nicholas and Ankara’s intention to build a “Santa Claus” museum in Demre: “When we build a museum in this town (Demre), naturally the first thing we will ask for are the remains of ‘Father Christmas.’  These bones should be exposed here and not in a city of pirates.”  The Turkish authorities’ casual assertion that holy relics can be transferred from a consecrated, sacred tomb and shrine to an entrance-fee secular museum, reveals either the cultural ignorance or the religious contempt for Christianity of Turkish officials—in either case, this fact makes clear why Turkey is unfit to take possession of the relics of Saint Nicholas.   

Since 2012, the Turkish government has enlisted the state scholar responsible for archeological research at Myra, Nezat Cevik, to lead the campaign for the “return” of Saint Nicholas’ relics to Turkey.  Cevik has, not surprisingly, urged Turkish state authorities to aggressively pressure both the Italian government and the Vatican, under the threat of financial retribution, to surrender Saint Nicholas’ relics to Turkey.  Curiously, Cevik, a professor at Akdeniz University, has ignored cultural or historical arguments to support Turkey’s demands.  Instead, Cevik has unabashedly emphasized the significance of Saint Nicholas’ relics in terms of tourism, commercialization, and profit, stating “the number of tourists visiting the church in Demre will drastically increase when the bones are returned.”                       

In principle, decent people everywhere may take umbrage with the way in which the Roman Catholic Church came into possession of most of the remains of Saint Nicholas.  In retrospect, however, decent people everywhere must also be grateful for the theft of those relics in 1087.  Had Bari’s sailors not made off with Saint Nicholas’ relics, where would those relics be today?  Perhaps we can answer that question by considering the fate of the tombs and remains of the hundreds of saints whose relics reposed amidst a vast thousand-year old Christian space filled by hundreds of monasteries and cathedrals, and tens of thousands of churches and parishes that covered Asia Minor before the arrival of the Turks.  We know where those tombs and relics, desecrated by Ottoman violence and intolerance or destroyed by Turkish nationalism, are—they have been cast into oblivion, as if they never existed.  Bari’s sailors justified their actions in Myra, and perhaps aimed to allay their possible latent guilt, by arguing that they stole the relics of Saint Nicholas in order to protect them from the advancing Turks.  We cannot know if such claims were sincere, but what is clear is that without such “piracy” we would have no relics of Saint Nicholas to revere today.                

The Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra remains in ruins, a casualty of Turkey’s longstanding, continuous campaign against Christianity.  “Secular” Turkey continues to seize historic Orthodox churches and turn them into mosques.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, its institutions, and the dwindling Orthodox Christian population remaining in Turkey continue to face religious persecution and harassment.  In occupied Cyprus, Turkey has conducted such a thorough and systematic campaign of religious and cultural cleansing against Christians and their historical patrimony that the Islamic State’s similar actions in Iraq and Syria almost pale in comparison. 

An unrepentant Turkey, which, only a century ago, murdered three million of its own citizens because they were Christians, is not a proper home for the sacred remains of the kind-hearted, selfless, giving man we, as Orthodox Christians, revere as Saint Nicholas, and the world loves as the jolly, sweet, joyous Santa Claus.  Given its history, and its unwillingness to come to terms with its own past and present, it is morally repugnant that Turkey would seek to profit from the bones of a yet another dead Christian.  Saint Nicholas may have lived and died in Myra, but Demre is a place to which he should never go, this Christmas, or any other time.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

The Incarnation and Interstellar

The start of the month of December this week reminded me that it’s time to sync my spiritual and mental clocks, so that I’m consciously focused on and preparing for the miracle that we remember on December 25th: the Incarnation, an event which, for every Orthodox Christian, constitutes the promise of salvation.

It may seem self-evident that we are keeping our hearts and minds trained on the approaching Christmas celebration throughout these next few weeks.  After all, as Orthodox Christians, we acknowledge the miracle and the Divine Mystery of the Incarnation each and every time that we speak the Nicene Creed, whose precise formulation is our statement of faith that, “…Who for us men and our salvation, He came down from Heaven and was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.”  Likewise, the prayers and hymns of the Church, as well as the breathtaking beauty and gentleness of the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child, remind us to take notice of the joyful promise of the young Mary’s exclamation about our Incarnate God: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior…henceforth all generations shall call me blessed (Luke 1:46-47.) Similarly, Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16), a message that communicates the direct connection between the event of the Incarnation and the hope of the Resurrection—a connection that liberates each of us from “the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2) and that suggests the possibility for the restoration of the wholeness of humankind and all the created order. 

In addition to the roadmap designed through the wisdom of the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy (the wonderful term popularized by the late Eva Catafygiotu Topping), by which the Incarnation links the Annunciation to the Resurrection, Orthodox Christians in America are inundated with ubiquitous reminders of the approaching Nativity, offered up by secular society in these United States.  Whether it’s the sounds of Bing Crosby or Perry Como or Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Christmas carols on most radio stations, or the month-long cable t.v. offerings of Christmas classics like Little Drummer BoyA Christmas StoryThe Nativity Story, and Elf, or the deluge of paper circulars and e-mails that advertise everything from Christmas fruitcake to Christmas destination vacations, Christmas, the event of the Incarnation, is being branded into our collective psyche, for 25 consecutive days.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Are we actually alert enough, conscious enough, reflective enough, to recognize that the motif of the Incarnation runs throughout our Orthodox prayers, hymns, iconography, and Liturgical life?  Answers to this question inevitably require that we engage in self-critique, that we take stock of our level of spiritual literacy, our commitment to spiritual training and education.  Whatever measuring stick that I might use, I cannot pretend to be satisfied with either the consistency or the sophistication of my contemplation of the Incarnation.  And, really, do we actually believe that the commercialization and secularization of Christmas in our society will help us to focus on the Incarnation?  My own sense is that the glorious celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is under continual assault, degraded by a political correctness which aims to stifle the kindness of heartfelt wishes of “Merry Christmas” with family, friends, and strangers, and perverted by the pathological shopping frenzy, the bread and circus, that begins with “Black Friday” and stretches up to the eve of Christmas.   

Admittedly, I was not contemplating the Incarnation when my husband and I settled comfortably into the Lazy Boy-style recliners that have been installed as ergonomically-correct, luxurious seats in the refurbished, suburban Cineplex near our house, to watch Interstellar.  This newly-released, science fiction film centers on the journey of an intrepid team of NASA research scientists braving cross-galaxy space travel through a wormhole, in order to determine which of three possible planets might be hospitable for mankind facing its own destruction in the face of the implosion of the Earth’s ecosystem. The movie boasts an Oscar-caliber cast (Michael Cain, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Matthew McConaughey) and a decorated team of directors and cinematographers known for their vanguard visual-effects work on other futuristic films.  All these factors, coupled with the reality that we were viewing Interstellar because our first choice—Jon Stewart’s directorial debut film, Rosewater, which depicts the true-life story of a British-Iranian journalist imprisoned and tortured while covering the summer 2009 elections in Iran—had been crowded out of the cinema by zillion showings of the latest installment of The Hunger Games serial, meant that we were surprised, intrigued, and provoked, by the ethical and moral questions that we encountered in Interstellar.

Because I have no expertise in writing movie reviews, and because that’s not the point of this blog post, I’ll refrain from any detailed critique Interstellar and, instead, will leave the assignment of tomatoes or stars to your individual preference, in the event that you see the movie.  In fact, I would encourage you to view Interstellar, simply because it’s an absorbing, if unusual, opportunity to think about and ponder on the Incarnation, catalyzed by two-plus-hours of a visually-stimulating and morally-sobering, narrative.

Here are some of the big themes and memes treated by the film:

1.     Faith and science may be (ir)reconcilable.  The wormhole is the main device for exploring the faith-science conundrum, since the scientists admit that there is no scientific explanation for the mysterious origin and location of the wormhole without which mankind’s hope for salvation would be impossible.  Did a “higher being” incarnate the wormhole?  Science’s nod to God also comes through in the importance of NASA’s previous “Lazarus Missions,” which have transmitted data from three (is the number a coincidence?), possibly salvific, planets.  Furthermore, the 10-year-old girl who eventually emerges, as an adult woman (Chastain, as Murphy) as the hero of the movie demonstrates an incorruptible faith in the deliberate and good intentions of “higher beings,” which she initially thinks is a “ghost,” that she believes is sending the indecipherable intelligence coding to her bedroom walls and floor. But the faith-science stand-off is, ultimately, unresolved in the movie.  For example, does Murphy hold the key to salvation because of her faith in and love for her father (McConaughey, as Cooper) or because of her faith in the rationality and empiricism of science?  And what of Murphy’s recalcitrant brother, Tom (Casey Affleck), who would rather die, and let his family perish, than trust in the scientific and medical assessments of his sister and her colleague?

2.     Salvation occurs relationally.  Interstellar leaves no doubt about the inextricable connection between the sustainability/destruction of planet Earth and the survival/eradication of mankind.  The NASA explorer team understands the risks of their search for the Lazarus Mission results as a responsibility towards all humanity, and at different junctures in the film, Dr. Amelia Brand (Hathaway), Cooper, and Romilly (Wes Bentley) step up to sacrifice their lives in order to sustain the mission and to keep alive the possibility for all of humanity’s salvation.  Even the artificial intelligence characters in the film, two robots named TARS and CASE, are willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the whole, hinting that they have absorbed their human programmers’ messages that there is no salvation alone.  Dr. Mann (played by Matt Damon, in one of his few film roles as a villain) brilliantly illustrates the message of the rupture in communion that is the Fall.  His Ego has driven him to evil, since he tries to murder Cooper as the first step to corralling the NASA spacecraft, the Endurance, back to Earth—a move that would have terminated prematurely the exploratory mission and, therefore, would have ended the possibility for humanity’s survival.  The character of Mann (man) was defined by his disregard for the collective consequences of his individual actions, a message that was played out in the revelation that Amelia’s father (Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand) knew all along that the only hope for human survival lay in Plan B—a harvested bank of fertilized human embryos that would be activated on the new planet, once all of Earth’s created order had been destroyed.  Dr. Brand confessed that his great ruse, whereby he had convinced NASA to build a colossal space station to take Earth’s remaining humans to another planet identified by Lazarus and Team Cooper-Amelia-Romilly, had been based on this straightforward assessment that people needed to be deceived into working cooperatively towards mankind’s (not necessarily their own) salvation.

3.     Love is the sine qua non for salvation and is the Incarnation.  The meme of unconditional love, which is the essence of the Incarnation, is echoed throughout the film—from the mysterious “They” who might have created the wormhole, with no intention other than compassion for humanity’s continuation, to Dr. Brand’s desperate plea (a scientific soliloquy on love) for The Endurance to go directly to the planet where her lover has been marooned.  However, it’s the evolution of the character of Murphy which offers the film’s most interesting, if sometimes convoluted, treatment of incarnate love.  In her growth from childhood to adulthood, Murphy moves beyond her disappointment and rejection of her father for his decision to leave their family to pilot the NASA vessel, to remember and to listen and to be alert to the quantum physics data that Cooper ultimately transmits back to her about the fifth dimension that holds the promise for humanity’s deliverance from death on Earth.  Murphy moves beyond her dejection and repudiation of her father, to forgive and to trust in his choice, thereby returning to him (as the prodigal), reconciling with him, and loving him unconditionally for the choices that he made. 

It might seem a stretch to go from an event as miraculous and incomprehensible as the Incarnation to the pedestrian platform of a sci-fi flick that, at times, is preposterous and pretentious.  I think that the stretch is worth the effort: simply put, if a movie helps me to contemplate, focus on, pray about, and give endless thanks for the miracle of Christ’s birth, then that movie is more than worth the price of admission.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.

Four Dishes and a Thanksgiving: November 23, 1961

I had been in the United States only twelve weeks when I experienced my first, and most quintessentially American holiday: Thanksgiving.  My father, Kosmas, my mother, Eleni, my older sister, Frederiki, and I immigrated to the United States from Kastoria, and arrived in New York on the first of September 1961, when I was three.  In late August, we had left Kastoria, sent off by a throng of tearful relatives, friends, and neighbors.  A five-hour-long bus ride on a largely mountain “highway”—in a reality a narrow, perilous, dusty, ancient road—delivered us to Thessaloniki.  From there, we trained across the Greek border into Yugoslavia. 

My parents had planned this circuitous route to America so that my father could see his nephew, my first cousin, Christos.  Christo had no recollection of my father.  The last time they had seen each other was in 1948, during the Greek civil war, when my father was a soldier in the Greek national army and shortly before Christo, who was not yet five, was forcibly abducted from his mother’s village by Communist guerrillas and sent to an indoctrination camp behind the Iron Curtain, as were thousands of other Greek children during the notorious paidomazoma.  My father’s middle brother, Alexandros, whose name I carry, had been executed, murdered by Communist insurgents well before Christos’ abduction. 

The four of us—my father, mother, sister, and I—disembarked from the train at Skopje station.  My father had 45 minutes, before our train departed again, to wipe away 13 years of separation.  Somehow, they found each other on the train station platform.  My 36-year old father—a survivor of the Nazi occupation, decorated combat veteran, a strong resolute man—and his teenage nephew—a beautiful, sensitive looking boy, the son of my murdered uncle—embraced each other, stared into each other’s faces, and wept uncontrollably.  My mother, sister, and I watched them both as they shared a plate of fasoulada and some bread.  They ate with two spoons out of the same bowl and drank wine out of the same cup that my cousin had brought to the station.

It took several days for our train to pass through Yugoslavia, Austria, and West Germany before we arrived in Belgium.  One day later, we left Brussels aboard a Sabena Airlines flight bound for New York.  One of my father’s cousins was a former Greek air force officer who worked for Belgium’s national airline, thus our ticketing and departure from Brussels. 

This was the first time any of us had been in an airplane, not counting the times my father had jumped out of them during his wartime paratrooper/commando training.  My mother fortified us for the long flight that lay ahead by bringing on board two enormous loaves of bread, salami, olives, and cheese.  She was stunned when the plane’s stewards served us meals, which she could not identify and which she was unwilling to taste.  My mother was incensed when the customs’ officials at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK) seized the cache of food she had carefully held on to for us across Europe and over the Atlantic.  As we shuffled past the customs gate, my father went ahead, looking for our bus connection to the Port Authority in Manhattan.   My mother and sister left me standing next to our gigantic trunk in the middle of the terminal space to wait for them as they went in search of a restroom.  In a split second, a man selling small brown bags of hot peanuts from a stand across from us, shouted in Greek to my mother: “My Madame, where are you going?  Don’t leave your boy alone here, not even for a moment.  You’re not in Greece.  This isn’t the village.  People here steal children!”  My mother recoiled in horror, fear, and embarrassment.  She held my sister and me tight to her as strangers hurried past us.  Seconds later, my father returned.  My mother turned to him and said in a voice I had never heard her speak in before: “Where have you brought us?” 

One day later, after leaving New York and crossing New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio on a cramped Greyhound bus, we arrived in Fort Wayne, Indiana—our destination.  Waiting for us at the bus station was the reason we were in Fort Wayne—my Uncle George, Theio Yiorgo.  Because my uncle had been made an internal refugee by the Greek civil war, he was able to immigrate in 1950 under the Displaced Persons Law, which circumvented the very small quota permitted for Greek immigration to the US since the mid-1920s.  He landed in Fort Wayne because it was there that that his official immigration sponsor, a second cousin who had come to America before the First World War, had settled and still resided.  Along this chain of migration, my father had followed my Theio Yiorgo and his family—my aunt, Theia Eleni, and my cousins Niki, Alexandra (Sandra), and Theodota (Dorothy) to Fort Wayne—an industrial city in the northeast corner of Indiana, equidistant between Chicago and Detroit. 

Soon after we arrived, and over the following several weeks, a seemingly endless succession of gregarious and warm-hearted people came to welcome my parents to the Greek community, anchored in the city’s predominantly working-class Southside district and around the modest, recently established Greek Orthodox parish of Holy Trinity.  As was the custom then among Fort Wayne’s tightknit community of Greeks, new arrivals were helped by earlier arrivals.  Most already established families would gift something small but tangible and practical to each new immigrant family, collectively aiding every new family with some of its basic needs for a new life in a new country.  One family might give drinking glasses or spoons or forks, another might provide plates, towels, or linens, and yet another might give a blanket or an icon.  In turn, once the new families would establish themselves they would contribute to help subsequent arrivals begin their lives in America.

I remember vividly one such gift given to my parents by a Greek-American couple, George and Rubie Mallers: four dishes, one for each one of us in my family.  These were not ordinary dishes.  They were beautiful dinnerware, pieces of white flawless china, bordered in crimson, and ornate, but subtle, 14-carat gold leaf.  George, the community’s rising young leader and an accomplished attorney and businessman, and Rubie, a refined, gentle woman and devoted mother to two sons and a daughter, gave my parents something more than a set of plates when they first met to welcome my parents into the community.  They shared grace with my parents.  They thoughtfully gave my parents something they needed, but they gave it in the form of something beautiful and precious, sharing dignity with my parents.

By October, we were staying in a small community-owned house next to Holy Trinity parish, a kind of transitional residence that many Greek immigrant families would briefly live in until they could find more permanent housing.  On November 23, we visited my Theio Yiorgo’s house for Thanksgiving.  I had no idea what Thanksgiving was and I did not really care.  My sister, who was now a second-grader attending “American school,” labored to explain to my parents the purpose of this strange holiday that was neither religious nor patriotic.  She insisted that it was some kind of American “Oxi Day.”  This meant nothing to me.  As a three-year old, I did not know what “Oxi Day” was.  All I cared about was that a feast awaited us and I would get to spend the day playing with my cousin Dorothy.

My Theia Eleni’s table introduced me to a standard of glorious Greek-American excess that our family gatherings would produce thereafter, holiday after holiday, for decades.  Yes, my first Thanksgiving, my first American holiday, celebrated entirely, as they all would be, with endless amounts of Greek food.  As we prepared to sit down around my Theia’s beautiful table—even the kids’ table sparkled with perfection—my mother produced the four dishes from George and Rubie Mallers in the event that more plates might be needed as the meal progressed. 

There was something about those dishes that I liked very much—they were pretty and pleasing.  I asked if I could have one of the “pretty dishes” for my Thanksgiving meal.  I was, of course, indulged.  My Theia Eleni whisked away her white dish and my mother put in its place a “pretty dish.”  As I gorged on roast turkey, keftedes, kritheraki, patates tou fournou, tiropita, and much more, I was convinced that the “pretty dish” must have somehow enhanced the food.  How else could I explain why everything tasted so much better than it ever had before?  Then and there, I decided that I liked Thanksgiving.

My mother, now 86, suffered a fall this summer that produced a fractured pelvis and an extended stay in rehab.  My wife, daughter, and I returned to Fort Wayne from Boston to be with my mother and to make structural changes to her house to help accommodate her return home.  For years, my mother has been imploring me to empty her cabinets and closets of things she no longer needs and to take them back to Boston.  I had never done so.  This time, I decided to finally appease my mother by promising to take back to Boston at least some dishes from the scores and scores of dishes and plates she has accumulated over the years. 

Going through my mother’s cabinet above her washer-dryer, I came across the four dishes George and Rubie Mallers had gifted to my parents 53 years earlier.  I had not seen them in perhaps more than thirty years.  I had almost forgotten about them.  I carefully held one of the dishes in my hands, and realized that the dish was not simply “pretty”—it was truly beautiful, extraordinarily unique, much like I have come to see and appreciate more and more things in life, as I have grown older.  I thought of the gloriously loud and voracious gatherings of my family at holiday tables in my youth.  Still holding the dish, I laughed with no one around me to hear as I remembered one such Thanksgiving Day feast when my Theia Eleni began to scold my Theio Yiorgo for eating far too much—again—suggesting that he might need to go on a diet.  That conversation and my Theia’s pleas for moderation ended abruptly when my Theio responded: “Woman, I didn’t come to America to go on a diet.  We starved plenty in Greece.  I came here to eat.  Now go bring us some more food.”   My Theio is no longer with us.  My father, too, has also passed.  My Theia Eleni has left us.  Even George and Rubie Mallers have gone on.  I would like to thing that those dishes, which remind me of some of the people and goodness in my life that I give thanks for, will still be here, will still be cherished by my family when I am gone.

When I left Fort Wayne at the end of August, the four dishes were the only things that I brought back to Boston.  Today on Thanksgiving, when my wife, Elizabeth, and our daughter, Sophia, and I sit down to our meal, we will eat from the “pretty dishes.”  I will tell Sophia this story, once again, so that she may share it with her children years from now, when they sit down to give thanks to God, laugh together, and eat from those four dishes.                          

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

Engaging Parents with Religious Education

I have the impression that most parents don’t have a good idea about how much work is involved in organizing a Sunday Church school class and, especially, what kind of learning is occurring in that class.

Our approach to involving parents in religious education thus far has largely been, the “send things home” model, usually artwork and crafts made in class. If all the parent sees is the art project that the child takes home, then, perhaps, they believe that the whole class session was devoted to its creation. They might not see the story time, the reading and discussion, the Bible Study and worksheets that were worked on before the art project commenced.

One result of this vision of Sunday Church school is that parents might be thinking “not much is going on there,” and thus it’s an easy choice between participating in religious education or participating in some other non-church related activity.

Perhaps, if parents began to see that their children are learning in Sunday Church school, the choice would be harder for them. If parents could see that participating in religious education was helping their children understand their Orthodox Christian identity and talk about their Faith better, then they might see the value of the program.

So, how can we engage parents with their children’s learning? The key is for teachers to form a relationship with the parents of their students through regular contact. Telling parents what Bible stories and books are being read, what hymns and prayers are being taught, what saints are being included, what liturgical practices are being practiced, and more, lets parents see that there is more going on in Sunday Church school than what can be shown with all the glitter and glue.

For example, collect the email addresses of parents by class. Inform the parents that they will receive a message from the teacher about the topic of a lesson, with questions and answers for them to discuss with their children on the way to and from church. Short bullet points are enough.

Second, find ways for the children to show what they are learning to the community. For example, after the second graders learn the Lord’s Prayer, let that class come forward in Liturgy and lead the congregation for a few Sundays. When the fifth graders study saints, let them make and display posters about saints in the church hall. During a fellowship/coffee hour, have the children near their posters to answer questions from the parishioners. Of course, someone should announce that this is occurring and encourage parishioners to visit all the posters and talk to the students. Encourage the teens to participate in the St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival and deliver their talks to the congregation, if need be outside of the judged Festival itself. Consider adding the poetry and essay divisions and allow the students to publish their poems and essays on the parish website, in the parish bulletin, or make a special parish newsletter designed by the students.  At the end of the Sunday Church school year, over a series of weeks, have a few classes present something that they’ve learned to the congregation.

Involve the generations. Invite adults, especially senior citizens to classes to talk about their faith journey, how their faith influences their life. With younger classes, parents and grandparents can be those extra helpers, reading a story, comforting a child, or assisting with projects. Hold an open house during fellowship hour, allowing the parish to see what’s being taught.

Find ways to extend learning into daily life. Organize a book exchange/swap. Create a reading list for books that can be read at home. Create a list of tasks that students can perform at home, from helping with chores to leading a dinnertime prayer.

Over time, I believe parents will begin to see that Sunday Church school is teaching their children the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life and see that this is the better choice for Sunday mornings.

 

Presentation: Go Beyond Your Parish Website

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