Christmas is now up and running in the whole of Europe including Greece. The festive spirit is everywhere you go and the streets are all lighted up. Are you ready to dig a bit deeper into the Greek tradition?
As in the rest of Europe, a Christmas tree is a must in every house but did you know that until the 19th century the norm was to decorate a miniature boat called ‘karavaki’ rather than a Christmas tree? Don’t forget that Greece is a country surrounded by sea and its history and culture is strongly related to it. If you get lucky, you might still find the Christmas ‘karavaki’ in certain places.
Homemade melomakarona and kourambiedes – traditional Christmas sweets – can be found absolutely everywhere you go, and are offered plentifully as a gesture of hospitality.
No matter where you stay on the 24th, you are most likely to be woken up from children knocking on your door to sing the Christmas carols. Going from door to door, they are usually offered some pocket money or sweets in exchange.
Most moms are already getting busy cooking for the big Christmas meal of the year. So it’s somewhere between cooking and singing that children open their presents the morning of the 25th. Santa always manages to sneak in the night before and carefully place them under the Christmas tree.
Of course you should not forget we are in Greece, where people love good food. The Christmas table the day of the 25th will be absolutely filled with food including turkey, filling, but also plenty of side courses, from salads to pies and roast potatoes. While now that Greece has become more westernised turkey and filling are served, in the old days Greeks traditionally ate pork on the 25th.
At the end, everybody is served a piece of Christopsomo (bread of Christ), a special type of sweet, aromatic homemade bread. The father of the family blesses the bread, before it is shared out to everyone at the table.
Meanwhile the town is still lighted up as New Year’s Day is approaching. Children won’t miss another chance for a little extra pocket money, so the previous morning they’ll go caroling again, keeping up the festive spirit.
‘The cutting of Vassilopita’ on the 1st of January is a Greek custom not to be missed. ‘Vassilopita’ is a sweet bread or cake (depending on the variation) in which people hide a gold coin (flouri) before baking it. The Vassilopita is ‘blessed’ by the householder and a piece is given to every member of the larger family and guests. The one who wins the coin hidden in its slice is the lucky one for the coming year and a small prize or money is offered to him by the host.
After the countdown to New Year’s, a pomegranate is smashed at the entry of the house, and the seeds that spread on the floor symbolize the number of children that the family is to be blessed with during the year. The already existing ones though, are soon to be sent off to bed! For grown ups on the other hand, the fun is just getting started…
The holidays gradually come to an end on the day of Theophania (6th of January), which holds a tradition reserved for the brave: during a holy ceremony, a priest blesses a cross and then throws it into the water. Anyone, that is brave enough to dive in the cold winter water, can try to catch it. The one who finds the cross and brings it back onto the surface is supposed to have good luck for the rest of the year. The winner will then go from door to door, people will kiss the cross as a sign of worship, and give money to its holder as a gesture of admiration.
Naturally, you’re likely to come across many variations, or entirely different traditions and customs in various parts of Greece. Most of them, however, are increasingly departing from their past religious focus and, now, their main focus is on the family and the gathering of the loved ones. Gifts, lights and delicacies make Christmas the biggest celebration of the year – and certainly children’s favorite one!
Author: Anastasia Valti