The mystery of Saint Nicholas from Tzithra

(The Agios Nikolaos Church in Tzithra)

The winter has finally set in on the island: a cold wind now blows the fruit-fly ravaged olives, oranges and mandarins from the trees. Even the last quinces cannot resist the strong winds and are falling from their branches. In one way or another the remaining pomegranates have managed to stay longer on the trees, where they’ll hang as natural Christmas decorations until the end of the month or even longer.

The olive harvest which started early this year and has not been too big. The people now kneeling on the cold earth, gathering the olives from the nets must be adjusting their shawls and headgear and regretting that they didn’t start earlier in a time when the sun still made it possible to have a picnic at the end of the workday.

Even in Greece, December can be a winter month. And now just as the activities for Christmas have started up, inclement Saint Nicolas-weather has invaded the island. In Holland Saint Nicolas warrants a major holiday, but even though Saint Nicolas came from neighbouring Turkey, in Greece he is only celebrated through his Namesday as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.

It’s strange that Lesvos has so little affection for the saint who has rescued many seafarers from drowning and saved children from starvation. Even though the island has many big and small harbours and in the winter the main occupation of the men can be found at sea, you will only find three well-known Saint Nicolas churches (I am sure there will be lots more, but small churches, like the one in the harbour of Molyvos, but I doubt that somebody knows all churches on the island). One of them is in Petra, at the foot of the huge rock, upon which stands the famous Maria Glikofiloussa church. So, a Maria, together with a Nicolas watch over the people at sea. Although the church of Saint Nicolas is somewhat small, it is known for its old mural paintings, some of them as old as from the 16th century.

A second Saint Nicolas church – the biggest of all three mentioned – is in Plomari. Built in 1847, it has a few nice icons and is regarded by the inhabitants as the most important church of their little city – which means that on the 6th of December public life there falls still because of the festivities for the name day of Saint Nicolas.

The third Saint Nicolas church can be found in the small village of Tzithra, a gathering of houses hidden in the greenery just below the town of Andissa. I wonder what this Saint Nicolas church is doing in a place relatively far from the sea (Tzithra is one of the few villages on the island without a sea view). The church is however mysterious. There is a mystery surrounding the enormous key that can open the church. I have been told that this key is kept by an old woman of the village (there are just a few inhabitants left), but each time I am in the village, this old lady is nowhere to be found. I have heard the same story from various people who have ventured out to Tzithra. In fact, I have never spoken to somebody who has managed to enter this holy church. So I don’t know anybody who can tell me if this church does indeed have a magnificent icon (or is it a fresco?) worth yet another visit to the village in order to hunt down the woman who keeps the key to the church. Maybe this is the beginning of a new myth: the one about the Saint Nicolas church that keeps its icon (or mural painting) a secret. Perhaps someone once was lucky enough to come across the woman with the key on the one occasion she was home; or maybe the key is just lost and no living soul cares about the interior of the church.

However that’s no reason not to visit this half deserted but picturesque village buried in the flowers of its abandoned wild gardens. You will find the road to Tzithra on the way from Vatoussa to Andissa, just a little further along from the road leading to Perivoli (a monastery which also has very beautiful frescoes, though its opening times depend on the mood of the monks who care for this now uninhabited monastery).

The dark days for Christmas have come: the wood stove purrs, the wind blows around the house, many a friend is getting ready to leave the island for brighter places, inhabitants are still filling the sacks with olives and others are already enjoying the new harvest, because the few olives that were harvested, have made a good quality of olive oil.

There is plenty of time to unravel the Saint-Nicolas-mystery of the absent key-holder of the church of Tzithra. On December 6th I will just have to go to the village, where – I suppose – according to tradition the church and Saint Nicolas will be honoured with flowers and other gifts. Surely, the church will be open then. 

On the other hand: nothing is more beautiful than a mystery. Maybe the mystery of the Tzithra Saint-Nicolas, the church with its lost key, is more comforting than a cold winter’s day journey through a cold and bare landscape. Maybe I’d better stay home that day, next to my wood stove, dreaming about imaginative mural paintings of the saints who brought colours to our world.