With this overview of Greek Christmas traditions the Kissamos News Team wishes all our readers a most blessed Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year!
Christmas celebrations in Greece officially last for 14 days, starting on Christmas Eve and ending on Epiphany (6 January) with the ‘Great Blessing of Water’. Following the Gregorian calendar, the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 25 December. However, as soon as December arrives, festivities begin: homes are decorated, and the smell of Christmas treats is in the air.
In Greece, Christmas is celebrated as a convivial and family celebration with many customs. Most Greeks used to be travelers or sailors and therefore stayed away from their homeland for a long time. For the feast of the Nativity and the subsequent feast days, the so-called Twelve Days, which last from December 25th to January 6th, everyone returned to their families.
As a maritime nation, Greece has a long naval heritage and the illuminated boat symbolises a love and respect for the sea, as well as the anticipation of reuniting with seafaring relatives and welcoming loved ones home.
The tradition of decorating Christmas trees was introduced to Greece in 1833 when the Bavarian Prince Otto, who was at the time ruling the country (1832 – 1862), decorated the first Christmas tree in his palace in Nafplio. For the next few decades Christmas trees were only seen in upper-class households and the custom only became widely popular after World War II. Until then, it was much more common for Greek households to decorate a small boat.
A 40-day period of Lent begins 40 days before Christmas, which is celebrated by the Orthodox Greeks on December 25th. Milk and animal products are prohibited during this period. December 24th is also part of the fasting rule. The Greek Orthodox festival does not have an Advent season. From November 15th to December 24th inclusive, preparations are made for the birth of Jesus. The purpose is to become aware of yourself, to reconsider the path you are on and to return to God. The feeling of hunger and the conscious avoidance of particularly nutritious dishes should make you aware that, in addition to your physical needs, you also have to think about spiritual things.
In the past, small ships were made and illuminated as Christmas decorations. According to legend, Saint Vasilis came across the sea by ship. Hence the old tradition of decorating small ships at Christmas. This custom used to be practiced in all coastal areas and on the islands, but has been replaced in recent years by the Christmas tree. In some regions of Greece, ships are still decorated with fairy lights.
The Christmas season is heralded on December 24th with the singing of the Kalanda (Christmas carol). Already in the morning, children go from house to house and sing the traditional Christmas carol, which announces the birth of Christ, to the accompaniment of triangles. After the lecture, the children convey their blessings for the residents of the house. Today, the children are rewarded with either something sweet or money. This move takes all day. Originally the Kalanda singing served as an occasion for charity and giving presents to the poor.
Christmas Eve is celebrated on December 25th. On this day the Greeks celebrate Christmas with their families. In the morning the whole family goes to church. People wish for Kala Xristougenna (ΚαλάΧριστούγεννα – Merry Christmas) or Xronia polla (Χρόνια πολλά – Congratulations – literally translated: many “good” years).
Afterwards, family and relatives get together to eat and drink together. The traditional Christmas pastries include kourabiedes, which are butter biscuits with almonds and lots of powdered sugar, and melomakárona, a pastry with honey syrup. During the Christmas season, the Christópsomo (Christmas bread) is also baked.
Vasilopita: The New Year’s cake with the coin
On New Year’s Eve, the evening before Protoxroniá ( Πρωτοχρονιά – New Year’s Day), many people like to sit together and gamble. Whoever wins now will be particularly lucky in the new year. Shortly before midnight, the children start another kalanda. They sing the song “Pai o palios o Xronos” – The old year is going away. We say goodbye to the old year and welcome the new. At midnight the Vasilopita (New Year’s cake) is cut. A cake with a coin baked into it. Anyone who finds the coin in their piece of cake will have good luck in the new year. The elder of the house cuts the pastry into equal parts, setting aside one each for Saint Vasilis, for Christ, for the Mother of God, for the house and for the “poor one”, and divides the remaining pieces among the family members.
The custom with the Vasilopita is traced back to Bishop Vasilios (330-379) in Cappadocia. The country was then under Roman rule. The Roman prefect levied taxes so high that most people could not afford them. Then Bishop Vassilios asked the rich of the country to donate the poor’s share of the tax sum. The wealthy among the Capadocians gave and Vassilios was able to deliver the required sum to the prefect. When the prefect heard how the bishop collected this gold, he was so touched that he decided not to collect the tax.
Now the bishop had a new problem. He owned a large number of coins and jewelry. It was simply no longer comprehensible who the donor of each part was. Vassilios had cakes baked and a coin or a piece of jewelry hidden in each cake. The pastries were distributed among the poor of Cappadocia. According to legend, everyone had their own piece of gold or jewelry in their pastry.
The tradition of Vasilopita is very much alive among the Greeks. At the beginning of the New Year, this cake is cut. Then the pieces are distributed to all family members. Whoever gets the coin or the talisman – the “Gouri” (το γουρι – the lucky charm) – has luck in the new year.
Breaking the pomegranate
On New Year’s morning, as the family goes to church, the man of the house puts a pomegranate in his pocket. Upon his return home, he must be the first to enter his house, stepping in with his right foot first and the pomegranate in hand.
He then breaks the pomegranate, throwing it down with force so that it will break and the seeds spread thoughout. Meanwhile, he says: “In good health, happiness and joy in the new year and as many seeds the pomegranate has, this many large bills to have in our pockets all year round.”
Then the children gather and examine the seeds to see if they are crisp and crimson-colored. The stronger and more beautiful the seeds are, the happier and more blessed will be the days that the new year brings.
The highlight of the Christmas festival: the big water consecration
On January 1st the Orthodox Church celebrates the circumcision of the Lord. Above all, the children eagerly await the arrival of Saint Vasilis, who will bring them gifts on New Year’s Day, his feast day. He is one of the most popular saints around whom rural customs and New Year’s customs have survived even in the cities. He is the patron saint of children and guardian of shipping. He was charitable and helpful. At a time when the state did not spend money on the poor and sick, Saint Vasilis built homes for the sick, orphans and the elderly in one part of the city – Vassiliada, providing shelter to everyone. He enjoyed the trust of the whole city and when he died, Christians and Hebrews mourned him together.
On New Year’s Day, the Greeks greet each other with “Kali Xroniá” – Happy New Year, or again with Xrónia pollá.
The climax of Christmas is Epiphany on January 6th. The appearance of God and the baptism of Christ are celebrated. The Great Consecration of Water is one of the most impressive celebrations of the Orthodox Church. This is the day in the Greek Orthodox church year when Jesus of Nazareth is said to have been baptized by John the Baptist. In Greece, after the liturgy, everyone goes to a local body of water – the sea, a river, a lake or even a water reservoir.
The priest throws an orthodox cross into the water, which young men then dive after. Whoever catches the cross first will receive a special blessing. All the bells ring in the villages and the ships in the harbor accompany the carillon with ship bells, whistles and fog horns. On this day, after the water consecration, the annoying Kalikanzari are sent back to the underworld.
Julian, Gregorian and Neo-Julian calendars
The Christian celebration of Christmas is second in importance to the Greek Orthodox Church. Easter is still the most important festival. The Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on different days. The Russian Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox Churches have retained the “old” Julian calendar. For them, December 25th is January 7th. So they celebrate Christmas 13 days later. Some Orthodox Churches, like the majority of Christian Churches, have adopted the “new” Gregorian calendar and celebrate Christmas at the same time as the Evangelical and Catholic Churches.
The Greek Orthodox Church is a special case: since 1924 it has been celebrating immovable festivals, such as Christmas, according to the neo-Julian calendar, which will correspond to the Gregorian one until the year 2799. Hence the misconception that the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates according to the Gregorian calendar. The movable festivals, such as Easter, on the other hand, are celebrated according to the Julian calendar, which is why the festival rarely coincides with Catholic Easter and sometimes takes place 1 to 5 weeks later.
Sources: greek reporter.com and evangelisch.de