Greece may be best known for its Easter holidays with the spring flowers and red eggs rather than its Christmas tradition, but it sure has to offer an unforgettable experience for everyone visiting the country during the 14 official holidays setting really off on December 24 to January 6.
What makes Greece a unique Christmas holiday destination is the combination of two different sides: the glamorous and festive on the one hand (clearly inspired by the Western holiday traditions and patterns) and the religious and family-type on the other hand. The Christmas season in Greece begins on December 6th, when the patron saint of the holidays Saint Nicolas, protector of sailors, is celebrated (which explains why many decorate boats instead of trees), and ends on January 6 th, which marks the Epiphany (Theophania).
Most Greek towns are being decorated with Christmas lights and trees, stores are all decorated with Christmas ornaments and the streets are full of people doing the last minute shopping of presents amidst carols and bands playing in a festive mood. In most major towns, you will find concerts, theatrical performances and other cultural events that guarantee a wonderful time with plenty of things to do.
The holidays feature three basic days of celebration: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and the Epiphany. On these days most people tend to gather at home with their families, relatives and friends and exchange gifts and wishes before the clock ticks midnight and the festive night life begins. Some choose to stay home and watch a Christmas show while enjoying their melomakarona and kourambiedes, while others party to daylight in the nightclubs and bouzoukia.
And this is what makes Greek Christmas an absolutely delight to the throat. Melomakarona and kourambiedes are something to wait for all year long. The first are semolina, cinnamon, and clove cookies drenched in hot honey syrup, while the second are rosewater and fresh butter cookies covered in powdered sugar. The kourambiedes are normally served on New Year’s Eve but you will not find many who resist them before then. Moving on to the Christmas Eve dinner, this is where the real feast begins. Traditional Greek flavors include roasted pork and other delicacies but lately the filled up Western turkey has also become very popular. Depending on which town you visit, you fill come across regional delicacies specially cooked for Christmas time. A fixture you will enjoy in every Greek home is the Christopsomo (Christ’s bread), a rich, round loaf scented with wine soaked figs, anise and orange.
When the clock strucks midnight on New Year’s Eve, Greeks cut their vasilopita, a bread or cake which contains a hidden coin or trinket (flouri) which gives good luck to the receiver. The one who cuts the vasilopita must first cut a piece to Christ, the Virgin Mary, the house and St Basileios.
The tradition of vasilopita is associated with a legend, according to which, St. Basil called on the citizens of Caesarea to raise a ransom payment to stop the siege of the city. Each member of the city gave whatever they had in gold and jewelery. When the ransom was raised, the enemy was so embarrassed by the act of collective giving that he called off the siege without collecting payment. St. Basil was then tasked with returning the unpaid ransom, but had no way to know which items belonged to which family. So he baked all of the jewelery into loaves of bread and distributed the loaves to the city, and by a miracle each citizen received their exact share, the legend goes. In some tellings the sieging chieftain is replaced with an evil emperor levying a tax, or simply with St. Basil attempting to give charity to the poor without embarrassing them.
On the Eve of Christmas day, New Year’s day and the Theofania, children go around from house to house singing the kalanda (carols), which is a very old custom that survives almost unchanged over the years. In groups of two and more, children take their triangles, guitars and accordions knocking on doors asking if they “can say them”. There are three different carols for each celebration but they all end up with the same wish “Κai tou hronou!” (blessings for the next year).
On Christmas day at dawn in the central Greek region of Thessaly, village girls go in silence to the nearest fountain to ”steal mute water”. The girl who reaches it first, will be the luckiest in the coming year. Having ”stolen” the water, they spread butter and honey on the tap so that well-being will run through their homes just like water does. They add three pebbles and a briar leaf to the water in their pitcher, symbolizing optimism, good news and protection against evil, and return home in silence. There, every family member must drink the ”mute” water. Whatever is left over, is spread in the four corners of the house, along with the three pebbles. Also in Thessaly, upon returning home after church on Christmas day, boys put cedar branches on the fire and girls, wild cherry branches. These represent youthful hopes for a happy life. The branch that burns first is of good omen to the person who placed it there, as it predicts a marriage will take place soon.
In some villages near the northern city of Edessa, on Christmas Eve, villagers take a piece of wood from a tree with a female name and another from one with a male name, preferably a thorny plant such as briar, and place them together in the chimney in a ”marriage by fire”. The way the wood burns determines the weather and the harvest in the coming year.
According to popular tradition, thorny plants chase away evil spirits. On the island of Crete, women prepare ”Jesus’ bread” (Christopsomo), a blessed bread that will sustain the entire family in the year to come. The women sit around the dough made out of the best flour and rose water, honey, sesame, cinnamon and cloves, singing religious songs as they wait for it to rise.
In Macedonian villages a few days before Christmas, the head of the family, generally a man, searches the fields for a large piece of olive or pine wood, while his wife cleans the old ashes out of the chimney and the vent, thus preventing any evil spirits from descending into the house. On Christmas Eve, the head of the family places the wood in the fire, where it will burn slowly through to the Epiphany. Tradition has it that this slow-burning ”Christmas wood” (Christoxylo) provides heat for baby Jesus in the manger, while its ashes will protect the house and land from evil.
On the small northern Aegean island of Skiathos, old people say that beginning on December 1, evil spirits begin preparing their ship to sail to the island, leaving on Christmas Eve and arriving on Skiathos on Boxing Day. From Christmas to the Epiphany, the islanders stay indoors at night to avoid being deafened by the chattering spirits. But the day before the Epiphany they leave the island in hurry, to avoid being burned by the priest’s holy water.
Epiphany on January the 6th is the revival of an ancient ceremony that predates Christianity. In ancient Roman times, the waters were blessed for the navigation period to commence, and Orthodox faith celebrates this day with Jesus’ baptism in Jordan river. All across Greece, the waters are blessed by a priest and then men jump into the cold waters to retrieve the cross, which is considered to give them luck and blessing throughout the year. After the diving fishermen ask the priest to also bless their boats. Moreover, this is the finaly day of the Kalikantzaroi spending time on Earth’s surface. Once the waters are blessed, the mischievious spirits responsible for many pranks and disturbances during Christmas, are banished back to Earth’s core for the rest of the year until they rise again next time.