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Christmas Traditions in Greece…

December 16, 2009

Christmas Traditions in Greece

By Thornton B. Edwards, Cephallonia, Greece
A folklorist married to a Greek girl

Even though the Greek Christmas is regarded by many as less colourful than the Greek Easter, the Greeks really have some of the richest Christmas traditions in the world. The Advent period is often taken very seriously by Orthodox Christians and those wishing to take communion on Christmas morning will be expected to fast during the whole period (or at least for the last three days). Fasting means abstaining from meat, eggs and dairy products as well as oil in a strict fast. If one sees someone at the end of Advent the traditional wish is “Kala Christouyenna” or “Good Christmas” yet on Christmas Day the usual wish is not this but “Chronia polla” or “many years” (which is also the traditional wish for important feast days and name days).

Greeks will normally start decorating their homes comparatively late, ie. just a few days before Christmas when housewives will start making the traditional Christmas sweets such as “kourabiedhes” and “melomakarana”. Christmas cards are not exchanged between members of the same family living together nor among friends who live near enough to be wished in person; instead cards are only sent to those friends and relatives who live far away. As elsewhere, the Christmas tree is a recent innovation and formerly (and indeed still on some islands today) a Christmas ship was decorated and had the place of the tree. This Christmas ship or “karavaki” (ie. little ship) is sometimes carried around by carol-singers on Christmas Eve, New year’s Eve and on the Eve of Epiphany. It is usually little children who sing the “kalanda” or carols holding triangles very early on these mornings for a few coins.

It is really the 1st of January (St. Basil’s Day) which is the most special day for children since this is when they receive their presents. This is because Father Christmas is not St. Nicholas/Santa Claus but Ayios Vasilis or St. Basil and so New Year’s Day is also St. Basil’s feast day (and the name day for anyone called Vasilis or for girls called Vasiliki – not to mention the day when the Orthodox Church celebrates the circumcision of Christ). Early in the morning on New Year’s Day a child (invariably a boy) does the “podariko” or first-footing by bringing a strange plant called a “skylokremmyda” or “dog onion” to the house. This is a plant with a few thick green leaves and a bulb that is wrapped with aluminum foil. This plant has several names according to the locality e.g. in Cephallonia it is called “koutsouna” or “askinokara”. The boy who brings this plant to the house will be given a “bonamas” or gift of money for the New Year.

Also on New Year’s Day there is the interesting custom of breaking a pomegranate on the door for good luck (an action which is sometimes performed by the bride in some regions of Greece when she arrives at her new home after the wedding). A special cake is eaten on this day called the “Vasilopita” or St. Basil’s Pie in which a “flouri” or lucky coin has been baked. Yet before this can be found the head of the house must first cross the cake with his knife and then cut the first slice for God, then the next for the baby Christ, followed by the “Panayia” (or “All Holy” – as Mary is called), then the next slice for the house and after for each member of the family starting with the eldest. The one who finds the “flouri” in their piece will have good luck all the forthcoming year. At the meal table there is also a special decorated round loaf called a “Vasilopsomo” or St. Basil’s bread (which is really identical in form to the “Christopsomo” or “Christ bread” eaten on Christmas Day and the “Photitsa” or “Lights bread” that will be eaten on Epiphany).

Throughout the “Dodekaimera” or Twelve days of Christmas it is of interest to note that all houses are vulnerable to a malicious type of elf / pixy called the “kallikantzari” (sing. “kallikantzaros”) who play tricks on housewives, put out the fire and urinate on the Christmas food if it is not covered at night. They also saw the root of a huge trunk on which rest the foundations of the world.

The Greek Christmas celebrations conclude with the festival of “Ta Phota” or “The Lights” as Epiphany is called. In the Orthodox Church this feast is important as the baptism of Christ. On the Eve of this day the priest will go round all houses and sprinkle holy water to bless the houses and all those who live there. It is believed that this visit by the priest will expel the “kallikantzari” who leave before they can finish sawing the world’s foundations. It is customary to give a small donation to the priest by way of appreciation and the name for this service he performs is known as the “ayiasmos” – the word also refers to the holy water itself some of which is kept with the family icons and is believed to have healing properties. On the day of Epiphany there is the great “Ayiasmos” service in the church. In some larger churches such as at the church of St. Eleftherios in Patisia, Athens, a pair of doves are released from the “kampanario” or separate bell-tower. In the port of Pireus and in most islands the priest throws the cross into the sea and a few young men will dive in to retrieve it – the one who catches the cross is being blessed.

Epiphany can really be seen to be the culmination of the Christmas season. While companies and organizations who meet after the Christmas holidays may still be seen in the newspapers cutting the “Vasilopita” or St. Basil’s Pie even as late as early February, with Epiphany the Christmas season essentially comes to a close. The next day is St. John’s Day (i.e. 7th January). On this day everyone called Yiannis (John) has their name day and relatives and friends who visit will still see the Christmas decorations up in the home. The decorations will be taken down on 8th January. This is also the time when children go back to school – i.e. on the first weekday after St. John’s Day.

from Christmas Magazine

See also:

Customs in more detail

Recipe for Christ-Bread (Christopsomo)

Recipe for Vasilopitta (St. Basil’s Cake)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2009 10:45 pm

    Thank you for this great post. Very interesting! We also wrote a post about Christmas traditions in Greece for our Christmas Around the World Series.
    Thanks again for your post.

  2. December 17, 2009 1:59 am

    Wow, nice traditions. Find out how we Puerto Ricans celebrate the holidays as well. HEre:

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