Saturday, January 13, 2024



“If she lived to celebrate other Christmasses, the heartless mother-in-law and unwitting infanticide did not enjoy a happy old age.” Alexandros Papadiamantis, “The Christmas Bread.”

One of my favourite ways of marking the turn of the season, is to read the Christmas stories of two of my most beloved authors, one English, the other Greek. Despite them living in completely different countries, with disparate living conditions, both were sufficiently moved by the feast of Christmas to pen stories in which the Christmas season becomes a symbolic backdrop for exploring deeper themes such as human nature, morality, and the contrast between the sacred and the mundane.

Charles Dickens, master of the Christmas story, was born forty years before his Greek counterpart Alexandros Papadiamantis and his Christmas books began to be published some ten years prior to Papadamantis’ birth. Dickens himself was introduced to a Greek readership in 1851, the same year that Papadiamantis was born, via the journal Efterpi which noted that Dickens’ works had the transformative power to make readers happier and nobler. The journal drew a parallel between Dickens’ compassionate heart and that of the Good Samaritan.

In 1854, another Greek literary journal hailed Dickens as a writer delving into domestic life and exploring all facets of human suffering, eliciting feelings of love and mercy. The journal noted that Dickens’ satirical style rendered his fiction both enjoyable and instructive, guiding readers through tears and laughter to the brink of supreme delight. The journal would go on, over a span for two decades to translate many of Dickens works of fiction. Dickens’ works were also featured in other prominent Greek literary journals by the intelligentsia of that era, who aimed to disseminate knowledge and foster social progress by portraying various social classes.

Thus, when Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was translated for the first time into Greek in 1888, the author was well known. Prominent Greek writers, such as Hristovasilis, Karkavitsas, and Voutiras, were inspired and systematically began producing their own Christmas stories, inspired by the idea that Christmas and Christian values could redeem misery.

It was however, Alexandros Papadiamantis who more than any other Greek writer made the Christmas Story Genre so popularised by Dickens, his very own.  As the case with Dickens, but even more so, the characters in Papadiamantis’ stories are often drawn from the lower social classes, portraying the struggles of everyday life. It is through these characters, that he explores the complexities of human relationships, morality, and the pursuit of happiness. Possessed of a keen eye for psychological insight, he depicts his characters with similar depth and nuance as those of Dickens. However while Dickens focused on England during the Industrial Revolution, Papadiamantis’ dramas played themselves out in predominantly agrarian and impoverished Greece.

Similarly, as an equally devout Christian, albeit an Orthodox one as compared to Dickens’ Protestant faith, Papadiamantis infuses his Christmas stories with many of the same religious themes and motifs, with the Nativity and the moral teachings of Christianity playing a crucial role in shaping the narrative. In this way, both writers’ stories explore the spiritual journey of characters during the Christmas season, emphasizing themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the transformative power of faith. Using the festive setting to convey profound insights about the world, both writers saw power in the Christmas spirit, viewing it as an opportunity for soul rebirth.

Further, Papadiamantis’ Christmas stories often serve as a form of social commentary, shedding light on the burning issues of his time. Whether these be poverty, inequality, or the clash between tradition and modernity, his Christmas stories hold up a mirror to the challenges faced by Greek society in his time. Unlike Dickens however, Papadiamantis rejects the notion of collective action and social reform, placing his trust in Providence. Instead, his characters discover contentment in poverty, grappling with inner turmoil rather than societal challenges.

While Dickens employed melodrama, suspense, and nature as a backdrop for plots, finding joy in depicting the warmth of households and guiding character transformations through moral instruction and fear, Papadiamantis’ short stories are driven by a desire to worship God and to preserve or attempt to define authenticity in the ethos of the Greeks of his time. His depiction of nature is not sensuous but stark, austere and reductive, used primarily as a topos in which his characters can find themselves in proximity to God and to contemplate the mysteries of their existence. Often, in contrast with Dickens, it is elemental forces and one’s own reaction to events that drive change and bring about an epiphany, if not redemption.

The distinction in perspective and style between the two authors could arguably be attributed to the difference in their life experience: Dickens endured a traumatic childhood, with his father being incarcerated in a debtor’s prison, but he also married, raised a large family, achieved financial success through his writing, received high praise from contemporaries around the world, and enjoyed much public attention. In contrast, Papadiamantis remained a solitary, impoverished individual, largely disdained by most of his peers, and actively avoided the limelight. This is also reflected in the writing style of the two authors. Dickens is lavish, mellifluous and revels in words. Papadiamantis, though writing in Katharevousa as was the convention in his day, an idiom that appears stilted to the modern ear and largely inaccessible to generations educated after the mid- seventies, is often concise, bare and austere. Nonetheless his words are steeped in passion.

Readers were quick to point out the similarities between Dickens and Papadiamantis, something which discomforted the latter to the extent where he was forced to assert: "I do not write like Poe, or Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Beranzer. I write like myself." Nonetheless, Papadiamantis possessed an intimate knowledge of the European literary tradition, honing his skills by translating major authors such as Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, de Maupassant, and Alphonse Daudet, along with some lesser-known figures like Bram Stoker, Hall Caine and Georges Ohnet. Despite his protestations, contemporaries could not help but to liken him to Edgar Allan Poe and Dickens, while his writing also drew on classics of the Western tradition such as the works of Homer, Plato, Hesiod, Dante, and Shakespeare and seamlessly incorporated scenes and passages from their works into his own writing. In 1941, Angelos Terzakis observed that Papadiamantis’ Christmas stories demonstrated how Dickens influenced not his form but his soul, drawing on Dickens's compassion for humble human beings.

Contemporary readers now find themselves a century apart from Papadiamantis.  Substantial shifts in the political, social, and religious fabric of the world he portrays have taken place. The manner in which his characters inhabited their world, interacted with each other and their environment, the challenges and dillemas they faced and the manner in which they responded to them, is often diametrically opposed to that of those now currently inhabiting the same space.  These transformations but also their commonalities with the corpus of cultural memories we still retain within our identity narrative, unavoidably shape our comprehension of his world, in the same way as Victorian England also seems to us to be remote and yet, also eerily familiar.

A discerning reader will recognize that this metamorphosis is not solely a consequence of temporal separation. Papadiamantis himself experienced a sense of estrangement from the literary and religious conventions of his era. Many of his Christmas narratives reveal his resistance to prevailing conventional beliefs of his time, challenging perspectives on historical and political events as well social assumptions. As such they are well worth reading.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 January 2024