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In Greece, A Muted Christmas Amid Tough Times

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In Greece, caroling season runs through the Orthodox Christian holiday known as the Epiphany, celebrated on Jan. 6. Traditionally, children go door-to-door, playing the triangle and singing songs of the season. In return, people give them a few euros for presents.

But this Christmas, Greek retailers say sales fell 30 percent from last year. The unemployment rate is at record levels, crime is rising and austerity is dampening everyone's spirits.

On one recent day, three 11-year-old girls are caroling outside a worn-out apartment building in their neighborhood. The song is called "Kalin Esperan Arhontes" — literally, "Good evening, lords" — a joyous greeting for those who open their homes to holiday cheer.

But there's not much cheer in Athens this year. The girls are singing outside because no one in this building will let them in.

"Some people let us in with love, and others just don't answer the door," says Alexandra Borozon, one of the girls.

They say they're not scared, because their fathers are watching over them. Another girl, Stella Tsega, points to two burly men standing just a few steps away. Vangelis Pissias, a 56-year-old architect, is one of the fathers.

"We're scared because crime has gone up here and we have to be careful," Pissias says. "The people inside are scared, too. Some also don't feel like hearing carols. And they definitely don't have the money to spare."

Carolers Get Less

Yolanda Mouzakiti, 9, says she also sees that people are giving less this year. Trailed by her mother, she is caroling to Ourania Godeva, who works in a craft shop in Yolanda's apartment building. Godeva opens the cash register and gives the girl 2 euros ($2.60). In the past, when business was better, she says, she might have given 5 euros ($6.50).

"It's true, people aren't giving as much money this year, but caroling is a tradition," Godeva says. "If shopkeepers run out of money, I've seen them give children other stuff, like an orange soda or chocolates."

Eirini and Panagiotis Kabouri, 9-year-old fraternal twins, like the chocolates, but they really need the money. Their mother, Popi, lost her job as a maid a few months ago.

"There's a crisis even in caroling," Popi Kabouri says. "People can't give much. And we've only gone to shops because people won't let us into their homes."

Eirini and Panagiotis make about 40 euros ($52) from their day of caroling — less than half what they made last year. Before the long bus trip home, they stop for cotton candy near a sad-looking Santa ringing a bell.

It's a cloudy day, and people are somber. And then, near an empty shopping center, they hear something beautiful.

It's a traditional carol from the city of Orestiada in northeastern Greece, sung by six young people from a theater troupe. One of them is playing the gaida — it's like a bagpipe — and people are clapping and dancing.

No one has shopping bags, but everyone is singing. Panagiotis and Eirini run to join the dance, and the crowd grows bigger and bigger.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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