It is the day before Christmas. And quite a few creatures are stirring, actually, though mostly outside of the house. Slow, black beetles and skittery spiders and bees buzzing around the rosemary bush and a bright green lizard disappearing between the stones in the wall. Boy Cat rolling around contentedly is his favourite desk chair, and the Black Cat That Coughs leaping through the grass, chasing a pale yellow butterfly that she will never catch. Flies zooming in through the open windows, and out again, back to the light. There is a lot of light.
Christmas Eve in Sifnos and the town is all astir, despite the warnings and the scenes of mass exodus at the port. This is not a town of ghosts. Everyone who’s still here is here, it seems, picking up last minute supplies for dinner, and their pensions, and presents from the two or three shops that are open, with stars and snowflakes drawn in glitter across their windows. A lady in the supermarket is looking for fresh mushrooms, which cannot be had; the butcher’s is busy, the meat cleaver falling loudly, crunching bones. Cars crawl down the road, blocking it frequently as they stop to exchange words with other cars, or motorbikes, or people on foot. Everyone is going somewhere, but slowly, their mellowness in contrast to the jagged, manic edges of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the decorations.
There is no Christmas Village in the square, but the village knows it’s Christmas, and tinsel twinkles everywhere as it catches the sun, sending strange reflections across the whitewashed walls. A nativity scene, lifesize, has appeared in the yard of an unoccupied building, and classical music drifts out the café up the road. Golden baubles hang in windows and over doors, dangle from pergolas and awnings, and dance in the breeze. The village knows it’s Christmas, despite the brightness that causes everyone to raise their hands up and shade their eyes, and the warmth that has them all loosening their scarves and wiping their brows. On every step and every doorway there is someone lounging in the sun, with sleeves rolled up to expose their arms to the heat. I take off layer after layer and end up sitting on a high wall in my vest, with a bundle of clothes rolled up beside me, looking over the edge of the land towards Paros, where our bigger island neighbours are getting ready for Christmas, like we are, but with bigger roads and bigger shops. I feel like waving, but I don’t. I’m getting enough curious looks as it is, sitting here in a pink vest and leopard-print leggings, and staring at the sea.
On the way back a transition, through the outskirts of town where houses and shops give way to fields and orchards, past the gas station, quiet, with long flags hanging limp from long poles, and those funny little bundles that are curled up cats, on ledges and rooftops, following me with their eyes, and several dogs, chained and free, yelping excitedly when I get too close, and then onto the ring road, private, sloping upwards just for me. I walk in the middle, along the white dividing line, trusting in the absence of cars and half-blinded by the sun, until I reach the top and the mouth of the grassy path carved by the stream that will bring me home. There I stop, and listen, and look: Christmas Eve in Sifnos. Mountaintops and sky. Bells, intermittent, as the animals shuffle from one patch of grass to the next. Little birds twittering in the bushes, an eagle flying silently overhead. A flock of doves, mostly white, cooing as they alight, in perfect synchronicity, on a telephone wire. A cock crowing insistently on a distant farm over the hill. In the valley below, the echo of a dull, rhythmic tapping, manmade. Fields of the greenest green dotted with yellow and purple flowers. A secret garden of citrus trees that I’ve never noticed before, walled in amidst the olive groves. A single tree on a hilltop outlined against the milky blue horizon. A stone dove house on the edge of a cliff, semi-derelict, triangle openings and flapping wings. And everywhere around mountaintops and sky. So much sky, for such a small piece of land.
Christmas Eve, and now the church bells are ringing, summoning the faithful inside to sing the psalms of Christmas in yellow flickering candlelight, as the day grows dark outside. Boy Cat is still in his deck chair; he stirs as I pass him, and gives me a look that is almost trust. I turn the lights on, all of them; the house seems darker, somehow, at this time, just before sunset, than it does in the blackness of night. I will do some yoga now, and cook dinner, and wait for the church bells to ring again. I will not heed their call, but I will listen. They make a lovely sound.
Christmas Eve, undecorated. Of all the good decisions I’ve made or stumbled into, this is one of the best. Christmas Eve in Sifnos, with nothing much to distinguish it from any other day, and this is the one I’ll remember. Of all the Christmas Eves I’ve spent in decorated houses, houses much brighter than this, with presents and carols and tables laden with food, wearing the spiky garland of stress that we wrap around each other for the holidays, like fairy lights tangled up in the branches of the tree – this is the one. The only time I heard the church bells ringing; the only time that sound has reached my faithless ears, free from the noise of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the silence. This is the one that means something to me.
It is the night before Christmas. And whatever it means to you, wherever you are, whether you’re where you want to be or somewhere else, make it a happy one. The church bells are ringing. You might not hear them through the noise, but they make a lovely sound. You wouldn’t know. But listen.