Although on the wrong side of 70, I still get excited about Christmas. It used to mean family holidays, trips, and getting out of boarding school. Now it still means good things, like parties and getting together with my children. And there’s always church and time to give thanks for all the goodies in life. Never mind what some catamites say about God and religion, it’s still the best deal ever.
I’ve had some pretty good Christmases, but I want to tell you about the bleakest one ever, 1944 in Athens, Greece. That summer, German occupying forces had withdrawn northwards and communist and nationalist guerrillas had amassed in the capital. This made for an explosive situation.
During World War II, a Greek government in exile had been formed in the Middle East by the Allies. It was headed by the recently resigned premier’s grandfather and namesake, George Papandreou. My own father had taken him to Marathon Bay, north of Athens, where a British submarine was waiting to deliver him to Cairo. When Dad arrived, Papandreou was with a couple. “I cannot travel without them,” the old lecher muttered. (The man was a professor, and his wife was the lecher’s mistress.) “In that case, you’re not traveling,” said Dad, and Papandreou dropped it, or rather them, and went along sheepishly.
A year later, with the Papandreou government back in Athens and elections about to take place, the communist guerillas had agreed to join the government, no doubt hoping to subvert it from within. The British commander, General Scobie, ordered the dissolution of the guerilla forces. They refused, left the government, and violence broke out in Athens. Most of Greece was under communist control. The only part of Athens still held by a small nationalist force, a brigade of British paratroopers, and the police was Kolonaki, a ritzy residential quarter near the British Embassy, and where the Taki house stood.
Two days before Christmas, my father’s textile factories had been burned to the ground by the commies, even though they had been shut down the moment Greece capitulated to the Germans back in 1941. The reason was simple. Dad was a capitalist, hence an enemy of the “people.” He was upset but much too busy organizing the defense of our house to dwell on it. In 1943 he had acquired an anti-tank gun, a machine gun, and plenty of ammo from an Italian officer for the price of a suit. The Germans were rounding up the Duce’s soldiers, and the Italian was posing as a civilian.
From the roof of our house, Dad showed us the flames of our factories, which burned for days. The fire brigade had not been allowed to intervene, and a couple of firemen had been murdered on the spot. That night, two days before Christmas, Dad left for Makriyanni, a besieged police station situated under the Acropolis. The fuzz had asked for help; Dad and some friends answered the call.
Christmas Day, I woke up early and discovered a little toy castle next to my bed. Dad had managed to cross the communist lines, find a toy store, and deliver it to me. I kept that most precious of gifts throughout my young life, until I went to prep school in America and was told that keeping it in my room was a no-no.
Never mind. All that day our house was under attack. I remember looking through the steel shutters and seeing a greasy-haired man in a raincoat with a carbine in his hands. He got hit just as he was about to reach our gate, and his body lay there for days. We had one policeman—who later married our maid Litsa—a bright red beret on the roof, and old Dad defending. The house gave as good as it got, thanks to the Italian guns.
The funny thing was that we were never scared as long as father was around. In fact it was quite exciting. Needless to say, there was no Christmas tree, not much food, and lots of praying by my nanny and mother. The battle for Athens raged for a full two weeks until British reinforcements arrived from Italy.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. Someone by the name of Winston Churchill also arrived on Christmas Day, billeting himself in the British Embassy next door. For some strange reason he did not call on us.
Our night watchman, Fotis, father of three, had his throat cut by the guerillas when he went out to find bread. His crime: working for a capitalist. Our driver Costas was trapped by those nice guys but fought back with his Mauser pistol. He kept the last bullet for himself when he ran out of ammo. Poor Costas knew what was coming.
So there you have it. We survived and prospered, but when I read those who praise the commies as freedom fighters, I think back to Christmas 1944 and thank the Lord they’re getting their comeuppance.