Saturday, December 23, 2023



Isidoros, known to the general populace as Izzy, is a Neo-Byzantine. What this means is that even though the last vestiges of Byzantine power fell in the fifteenth century, they endure in him, and his coterie of friends, of whom I am one, by imposition. We do not visit him in his parents’ house in Footscray on 29 May, for he is deep in mourning and woe betide any of us who has the effrontery to wear clothing of a porphyry hue, for such attire is the preserve of the Emperor alone and he, as self-appointed protovestiarios, guards his privileges faithfully, regardless of the expletives we murmur under our breaths, in Yeats’ Byzantine iambic pentameters, of course.

Similarly, Isidoros is the sworn enemy of Western Christmas. This year when he turned up to our house unannounced a few weeks before the great Feast, fulminating against the latest biography of the Emperor Justinian, he found me in the garage, teaching my progeny traditional Greek Christmas carols.

“No, no, no!” he screamed, “not like that. During the Dodecahimeron (Isidoros always pronounces the Spiritus Asper), children are supposed to go from house singing carols accompanied by the sound of the pipe, not the triangle and the tambourine!” Leaning torwards my startled children, he admonished: “Remember kids, the scholar Ioannis Tzetzes recorded that in order to get treats when carol signing, children had to praise the owners of the homes they were visiting. And the only proper gifts you are allowed to receive are exotic fruits, nuts, eggs and gold coins. If someone gives you chocolate, throw it back in their face.”

“We aren’t allowed to eat chocolate,” my youngest daughter replied.

“Why not?”

“Because they didn’t eat chocolate in Byzantium,” she responded, giggling.

Noticing Isidoros’ eyes brimming with tears, I ushered him inside. This was a grave mistake, for almost immediately, he let forth an almighty bellow of disapprobation. From one perspective, this is understandable. We tend to go rather overboard at Christmas and the entire house is festooned with wreaths, elves, garlands and related paraphernalia. The Myer Christmas windows have nothing on our abode, save for the fact that our adornments are actually Christmas-themed.

“What in the name of Belisarius is all this rot?” Isidoros bleated. “Elves? Pagan wreaths? The baubles of heretics? Teutonic Christmas trees of gaudy excess? You call yourselves Byzantines? You should be ashamed of yourselves. You are nothing more than uncouth Varangians!”

“Oh best of men,” I cajoled him. “Be of a cheerful disposition. Did not the Byzantines also indulge in Christmas Trees?”

“Nooooooo,” he shook his head angrily. “In those times, the Emperor would order that the streets be cleaned and decorated at certain intervals with poles of rosemary, myrtle branches and blossoms of the season.”

Visions of the Seinfeldian Festivus Pole flashed by but I held my peace.

“The pernicious custom of the western Christmas tree was introduced by the Bavarians who decorated the palace of King Otto in 1833,” Isidoros exclaimed. “We must stamp out this pestilent practice.”

One particular Byzantine Christmas custom that Isidoros always neglects is that of the masked prank. In the times he so cherishes, the Byzantines donned various disguises and would knock on their friends’ doors, disturbing their slumber. According to accounts, dressing as a soldier, a priest or an animal, preferably a deer, a camel or a goat was all the rage. In keeping with the custom, a friend once knocked on Isidoros door pretending to be the tax man, causing his parents heart palpitations and last year, I too turned up on his doorstep on Christmas Eve, dressed as his former fiancée (the one who broke his heart), an act that took considerable courage, as Isidoros lives on a main road, where parking is scarce and I had to park and make my way to his premises from the adjacent side street in drag. Sadly, neither Isidoros nor his parents were home, though I did get propositioned by an elderly Vietnamese man on Droop Street with a walking frame, proving to all and sundry that even in middle age, I’ve still got it. When Isidoros did find out about the thwarted prank, he merely quoted the canons of the Quinisext Ecumencial Council, in which the wearing of disguises is banned and merely shrugged when I protested that the abolition was more honoured in the breach, for the custom survived until at least the twelfth century.

Having wolfed down our entire supply of melomakarona, Isidoros settled into an armchair. “You know what we need to do as a community?” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “We need to bring back the Emperor’s Christmas celebrations.”

“But we have no Emperor,” I lamented. “We have a Greek Community President, a multitude of other little presidentiskoi, a Consul-General and a crown-wearing Hierarch, but if one goes forth within the Community in search of an Imperial Overlord, one soon learns that there is an absolute dearth of this commodity.”

Liutprand of Cremona, an Italian bishop and historian dispatched as a diplomat to Constantinople during the tenth century, penned an account of his personal invitation by the Byzantine emperor to partake in Christmas festivities, at the imperial court. It is this ceremonial that Isidoros wants to revive, if only an emperor could be found.

According to Liutprand's narrative, the Imperial Christmas celebrations transpired within a palace referred to as the "The House of the Nineteen Couches." The extravagance of the Christmas celebrations was notable, with Liutprand describing how "everything is served in vessels, not of silver, but of gold." I asked Isidoros whether ancestral stocks of silver dinner sets and cut Bohemia Crystal glasses could be substituted and the answer was firmly in the negative.

According to Isidoros, there would have to be a fixed hierarchy of dishes served, for Liutprand recounted the presentation of food in three weighty golden bowls, transported by carriers concealed beneath a purple cloth. These bowls were lowered to the guests through apertures in the ceiling, each suspended by “three ropes covered with gilded leather and furnished with golden rings,” no doubt creating the need for urgent renovations to the Greek Centre, for this is where I envisage that this grand re-enactment would take place.

Isidoros offered no response to my question as to which eighteen lucky community grandees would be invited to take their places on the couches next to the Emperor, in order to dine with him so I suppose my suggestion, that the places be taken by the last surviving members of the moribund Council for Greeks Abroad (SAE) Oceania, could feasibly be adopted out of humanitarian concerns, over my other suggestion, that as it was also the custom for the Emperor to invite twelve of Constantinople’s poorer residents to dine with him, then plausibly the most suitable person to act as Emperor in our projected reconstruction would undisputable be the leader of our community Commercial Organisations, known for their fraternisation with the more humble classes.

That the substitute Emperor would have to be of a suitably humble disposition is evidenced by the staging of the “Prokypsis,” a custom that took place only twice a year, at Christmas and Epiphany, whereby the Emperor would emerge from behind a curtain on an elevated platform, illuminated by artificial light and acclaimed with accompanying trumpets and other instruments. The Emperor of course would have to be clad in full regalia, cut off at the knees by a balustrade that also obscures the two kneeling men holding the candle and the sword both visible beside him. The height requirement here disqualifies eighty percent of the Greek presidents of Melbourne and the question as to whether the Emperor will enact the Prokypsis at South Melbourne Theophania or Frankston, or both, and what the status of the schismo-prokypsis at Rye will be, is also yet to be resolved.

Despite the protestations of the Byzantine clergy, they were never able to stamp out the custom of the race-mad Byzantines flocking to the Hippodrome to enjoy the Trots of a Christmas. Accordingly, there is nothing stopping our Victorian Commemorative Council of Absolutely Everything from hiring out Flemington Race-track on Christmas Day, allowing our community τζογαδόροιto indulge in their passions while also performing the valuable function of alleviating family tension built up over the hours of enforced levity, by removing themselves from the festivities. Isidoros is against the revival of this practice. Horses make him itch.

The year my son was born, the day after Epiphany, Isidoros turned up at my home bearing Christmas gifts. As a true Byzantine, he celebrates Christmas according to the Julian calendar as our ancestors did right up until 1923. The gift in question was situated in a bowl and took the form of a globulous mass of semolina, honey and butter. “What is this swill?” I feigned outrage.

“This,” Isidoros hastened to inform me, is the «λοχόζεμα», a dish that the Byzantines made in honour of the Panagia. It is given to breast-feeding mothers the day after Christmas – the true Christmas, that is, as an aid to lactation. I’m hoping that…. ”

“Do you want to tell my wife this, or shall I?” I inquired, eyebrow raised. “Further, you ought to know that the practice was outlawed by the Sixth Ecumenical Synod on the basis that the Panagiadid not experience the Postpartum Period the way ordinary mothers did. Take this heretical bowl of slop away from this abode you Neo-Nestorian before you are exiled to the outer darkness, where there is only wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

“But I have no plans to visit Templestowe,” Isidoros protested.

This year, in case Isidoros returns for Byzantine Christmas, I shall be ready. I shall be taking a leaf out of Liutprand’s book, who records remarkable Imperial Christmas performance whereby a man balanced a wooden pole on his head without utilizing his hands. Two young boys proceeded to showcase gymnastic feats on this pole, all while the older performer maintained its balance on his head. I know of no acrobats, but I intend to sharpen both ends of the pole and one end, to transfix that Greek-Australian Christmas favourite: a Panettone. The trouble is, I’m not sure what the Byzantines did with the other end. Perhaps Basil the Bulgar Slayer offers a clue.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 December 2023