SOCIETY

When ‘the maids pelted passers-by with snowballs’

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I always know who to reach out to when I’m looking for information on the history of the Greek capital. Author, journalist, researcher and former deputy mayor of Athens Eleftherios Skiadas has a brain like a hard drive packed with stories about the city, able to recall incidents of both major and minor importance in impressive detail.

Skiadas is also the driving force behind the Educational Foundation of the Municipality of Athens, an initiative that is currently in the works and aimed at bringing together archives and records ranging in interest from city planning to culture that tell of the capital’s past.

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Snow blankets the archaeological site of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, in 1981.

As well-formed snowflakes drifted past my window on Tuesday, I asked him to tell me about some of the other times that the Greek capital saw snow.

“The ground remained covered in snow for several days back in January 1850 and everything was all white for 14 whole days during the same month in 1864,” he answered.

“People will be even more impressed to hear that in March 1880, the temperature dropped to -7 Celsius and in 1911 to -3C. The difference in 2021 is that this was the first time the people could not go outside to enjoy the phenomenon because of the pandemic. Snowfall in the capital always used to bring battles to the streets of the city,” Skiadas adds.

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A tram passes near Zappeio Hall in Athens, also in 1981.

Newspapers rejoiced in stories about the frenetic energy in Athens at the sight of thick fresh snow. “The maids pelted unsuspecting passers-by with snowballs from balconies, windows, rooftops and courtyards,” one press clipping reports. The first victims of these snowball battles, said Skiadas, were normally seamstresses on their way to work, usually very early in the morning.

“Snowballs would be volleyed from barracks, especially on [then Kifissias] Avenue [today the NIMTS Hospital] as hidden lieutenants and sergeants threw snowballs at pedestrians. But the greatest battles unfolded in front of the University of Athens, a proper salvo, as heavily ‘armed’ students took aim at passers-by. Their only defense was their umbrellas, which played the role of shields, hard-topped hats that became helmets and walking sticks as bayonets,” he recounted.

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A snowman graces the courtyard of the University of Athens on Panepistimiou Street in 1981.

An Athenian hailing from a family with roots in the capital since the 17th century, Skiadas vividly remembers his childhood in the neighborhood of Thiseio and what every snowfall would bring: “Gangs of boys and girls would come out into the streets and muster at Attaliotika, what is known today as the Philopappou ring road. And there, we would have proper battles! There was also a taverna owner on the main square of Thiseio, Barbayiannis, who always made a snowman.”

To illustrate some of his memories, the former deputy mayor also gave us four the four photographs seen here, which have never been published before.