”Karavaki,” The Old Greek Tradition of Decorating Boats — Not Trees — at Christmas



A Christmas ship and trees at night

Christmas is linked all around the world to the ancient tradition of decorating a Christmas tree with countless ornaments and beautiful lights. However, an old traditional custom in Greece’s islands and coastal regions dictates that people should decorate a boat rather than an evergreen tree at Christmastime.

Despite that nowadays almost every Greek city and household does decorate a Christmas tree, there are still a number of public spaces in Greece where one can see a Christmas boat right next to a tree.

The tradition of the ”Karavaki,” which is Greek for ”small boat,” is deeply rooted in the folkways of a country with a symbiotic relationship with the sea.

In fact, it is safe to say that on many Greek islands, the Christmassy-decorated boats still remain the most popular symbol of this beautiful holiday season.

The city of Thessaloniki used to decorate one of the largest Christmas boats in Greece. Sadly, this tradition was discontinued a few years ago.

What is sure is that there is no known reason exactly why many Greeks traditionally decorate a boat at Christmastime rather than a tree.

The most plausible explanation would be that the residents of the southern islands of the Aegean Sea were simply not used to trees at all.

Their islands are dry, arid places where the only trees that can be found are short, scrubby bushes or perhaps an odd wild-growing olive tree.

So what would be more natural for them to decorate something they know well — a boat?

Greece is a nation which has since antiquity been deeply proud of the large number of sailors and intrepid captains it has produced, making these men the very symbols of local and national identity.

In the past, nearly all the men of the islands would often be away for months at a time, and their families back home would be anxiously waiting for their return.

Meanwhile, the wives, mothers, and daughters of these seamen would spend the cold and dark winter months with their hearts and minds on the sea.

Today, the majority of Greece’s islands still decorate sailboats in their public places

Somewhere out there, their men were battling the stormy seas during the holiday season in order to be able to bring back home their much-needed cargoes of fish. These were months full of expectation, hope, and prayer for the sailors’ safe return.

The joy of finally seeing the boats of their loved ones coming back and nearing familiar shores made the island women celebrate in relief.

This perhaps is how the sailboat became a symbol of honoring those brave men, during the year’s most beautiful season.

Of course, there are a number of other explanations about why Greeks who live close to the sea decorate boats at Christmastime.

One of the most popular ones is that boats are decorated due to the celebration of Saint Nicholas on his feast day, December 6. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, making the occasion of his celebration a good reason to decorate boats.

However, what really matters is not the reason why this beautiful tradition began, but that it has somehow managed to survive these many centuries, and is still kept alive in many parts of the country.